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Nonetheless, Wiltzius says, “electronic paper is what captures the imagination.” In three to five years, he thinks, the E Ink/Lucent team might have e-paper with a resolution equivalent to about 100 dots per inch. “That’s a little better than a [Palm] Pilot,” he says. “We already have the viewing angle down-you can read across a much wider range of angles. And then there’s the issue of color, which I think can be done.” He ticks off challenges: durability, reliability, printing registration. “There’s some good work to do before this paper is ready to change the world,” he says.

The book of the future, e-paper researchers like to say, will look just like a regular book. It will have a hard cover and a spine and several hundred thin, white, flexible pages. But the spine will be filled with electronic circuitry and a wireless data port and maybe a stylus; the pages will be electronic displays. Readers will open the cover and-here the vision gets a little fanciful-be confronted with a list of the works contained in the book, arranged by title, author or subject matter. Because this is 10 or more years from now, data-storage devices will have shrunk even further, and thus embedded in the spine of this single volume may be a hundred novels, even a thousand, all downloaded through the data port. The reader may tap the name “Charles Darwin” and be offered a list of works ranging from the The Voyage of the Beagle to The Origin of Species.

After the reader selects the Origin with the stylus, the text swims noiselessly onto the empty pages of the volume. Tap a footnote with the stylus, and the appropriate text appears in a window on the bottom of the page. Does that book contain a reference to another work by Darwin? Scribble a request on the inside cover and jump onto the Net to grab a copy. Scientific texts could be continually altered to keep pace with research.

Some of this will be possible with conventional e-books, of course. But electronic paper, which is reflective, is inherently more readable than backlighted computer displays: even the crude prototypes made so far are legible at a greater angle and in brighter sunlight than most computer monitors. Not only that, conventional e-books sacrifice many of the best design features of books-the possibility of flipping back and forth between pages, the capacity to negotiate a text by remembering the physical placement of favored passages, and the chance to underline passages and mark pages. In addition, electronic paper could be so inexpensive that a few hundred sheets of it in a book could cost less than most laptop screens. Like the printing press before Gutenberg, the e-book will need paper to become important in most people’s lives.

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