Intelligent Machines

Pocket Printer

Polaroid and Zink Imaging announce a miniature photo printer for cell phones and cameras.

Polaroid, the company famous for cameras that print instant pictures, unveiled an ultrasmall photo printer today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The company’s new handheld printers produce color photos using novel thermal-printing technology developed at Polaroid spinoff Zink Imaging and first demonstrated earlier this year. (See “Printing without Ink.”) John Pollock, the vice president and general manager of digital imaging at Polaroid, says that the printers will be available to consumers by the summer, and they will be priced at less than $150.

Quick pix: This Polaroid printer is about the size of a deck of cards and prints photos on two-inch-by-three-inch sheets of paper, without using ink or toner. Instead, it uses a novel type of thermal-printing technology developed by startup Zink Imaging. Zink developed special paper (bottom) that contains layers of crystals that release pigment when heated.

Pollock calls the device, preliminarily dubbed the “digital instant mobile photo printer,” the ultimate in mobile printing. “When you talk about most portable printers today, you’re dealing with lunchbox-sized printers,” he says. “What Zink allows us to do is to get ultrasmall form factors.”

The printer is about the size of a deck of cards. A user who takes a picture on a cell phone or camera can wirelessly send the file to the printer using Bluetooth, a common short-range wireless technology used in cell phones, or PictBridge, a wireless technology found in a number of cameras. The result is a two-inch-by-three-inch photo printed on paper engineered by Zink.

The printing technology is similar to that of a common thermal printer, says Steve Herchen, chief technology officer at Zink. Inside the printer is a dense collection of tiny heaters–300 per square inch. Zink’s paper–which looks and feels like normal photo paper–consists of a white plastic sheet covered with three thin layers of dye molecules. Initially, these molecules have an orderly crystalline structure that renders them transparent. But when heat is applied, the molecules change orientation to become an amorphous glass, reflecting either yellow, magenta, or cyan light. By precisely controlling the temperature and duration of the heat emitted by each heater, the printer can blend the three colors into any combination.

Since Zink’s technology eliminates the need for printer cartridges, Herchen says, it has led to the smallest printers on the market, and it could eventually be integrated into cell phones and cameras. It would also dispense with the inconvenience of ink cartridges that unexpectedly begin to run out of ink, and which have to be replaced. “When you go to replace an ink-jet cartridge today, it’s in the $40 range,” Herchen says. With Zink, a person pays only by the print. Polaroid expects to sell the photo paper for $0.30 a page. “You know exactly how many prints you’re paying for,” Herchen says.

While the technology may be clever, some analysts aren’t sure that it has a very large market. “It’s going to be a hard sell, in my opinion,” says Ron Glaz, program director for digital-capture devices and photofinishing research at IDC, a technology research firm. One reason, he says, is that people are accustomed to e-mailing pictures to each other or sending them to each other’s phones, and they probably won’t want to carry around another gadget just to print pictures on the spot. “All these pocket technologies are supposed to simplify the process, but it’s creating a new problem of finding a way to carry all these things with us,” Glaz says. “Other than niche users who might need to print something out on the spot, the use of this type of technology is just limited.”

Polaroid’s Pollock says that his company’s market research shows that teenagers, in particular, like the convenience of being able to print and share digital photos instantly, and 68 percent of teens who tested the device expressed the intent to buy it. Other demographic groups found the device less appealing, Pollock says.

Another reason that Polaroid’s printer might not become widely adopted is more technical. While the Bluetooth communications protocol is common, manufacturers often prevent nonproprietary devices from linking wirelessly with their phones. “Right now we’re working on making sure compatibility with cell phones is as high as it can possibly be,” says Pollock. “The vast majority of cell phones work, but there are instances where the carrier blocks down the Bluetooth interface.” Currently, the iPhone will not work with Polaroid’s printer. Pollock says one of the company’s priorities is to make sure that it will in the future.

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