In the company’s Cambridge, MA, headquarters, two prototypes show the payoff. One is an e-reader display in bright, vivid color. Touch a button, and an image of a bunch of flowers appears; bring the display outside, and it shines brighter because it is reflecting ambient light. (As with black-and-white e-paper, until a user changes that image, the unit consumes virtually no power.) The other prototype, a six-inch display hooked up to a computer, showed a video clip from the animated movie Cars. It was a bit grainy but was switching frames 30 times per second. Two years ago, the switching time in products with E Ink technology was just one frame per second.
While the video version is still several years from market, “this was a landmark research advance in the history of e-paper,” says Russ Wilcox, E Ink’s CEO. Invoking the long-held dream for e-paper–that it can be an electronic replacement for real newsprint–he added, “You can imagine a USA Today weather chart where clouds are actually moving.”
E Ink is working with several leading display makers to develop flexible transistors that will create E Ink and other color displays that are bendable and even rollable. LG Philips recently announced the world’s first 14.1-inch flexible color e-paper display using E Ink technology. The color version uses a substrate that arranges thin-film transistors on metal foil rather than on glass. And last month, Samsung used E Ink technology to set a new world record in terms of the resolution of a large flexible color display. (Samsung’s 14.3-inch screen has a 1,500-by-2,120-pixel resolution.) No commercialization date has been announced for these technologies.
Other companies are also making advances in e-paper. One of them, San Diego’s Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, has developed a MEMS-based version that can produce video-ready refresh rates and will appear in monochrome and bicolor displays in the next year or so. (See “E-Paper Displays Video.”) But E Ink is generally acknowledged to have the best technology in terms of simulating the look of paper, says Raupp, whose research lab has partnerships with 16 display makers, including both E Ink and Qualcomm. “Put the two side by side–which one looks like paper? There would be no contest,” Raupp says of E Ink and Qualcomm. The move into video and color “expands the application space” and makes E Ink a leading candidate to become a fixture in flexible displays, he adds.
When designing an embedded system choosing which tools to use often comes down to building a custom solution or buying off-the-shelf tools.