Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Cheap E-Paper Displays Coming to a Store Near You

Nemoptic’s new e-paper technology is cheap and efficient enough to be used almost anywhere.

  • July 12, 2010

Technically, the e-paper race is full of dark horses–including the sector leader itself, E-Ink, whose electrophoretic e-paper technology, used in the Kindle and countless other e-paper devices, is threatened by upstarts like Apple’s iPad and forthcoming hybrid “transflective” LCD / e-paper displays from Pixel Qi.

But to declare the race for e-paper dominance over is to forget just how widespread and diverse are the uses of dead-tree paper: every one of which represents an opportunity for e-paper manufactures.

Nemoptic, which has yet to partner with a hardware maker willing to put their displays into a proper e-reader, has managed to carve out a niche for itself by following this logic, and creating an e-paper display usable in place of those little tags on the front of grocery store shelves that tell you the prices of goods.

Apparently the ability to remotely update prices on store shelves from a centralized computer is labor-saving enough that retailers throughout Europe and Asia are jumping on the e-paper bandwagon.

Now Nemoptic is showing something new. It’s still the size of a shelf-front tag but, coming from a company that specializes in e-ink displays so cheap they are almost disposable, it shows some potential.

In a five-part demo just posted to YouTube and exclusive to Technology Review (as of this writing, none of these videos has more than a few dozen views) Nemoptic shows off its new black and white “bistable, nematic” e-paper technology.

This first video shows off the display’s relatively fast, 30 millisecond refresh, and a resolution sufficient to “render complex Chinese characters.” (Note the implicit focus on an extremely price-sensitive emerging market.)

In an intriguing development, this video shows the display’s ability to do a partial refresh–that is, to only refresh the part of the display that requires it. It could be both a performance-enhancing and a power-saving measure.

This clip shows off one use of the display’s high refresh rate–the ability to accommodate natural handwriting and note-taking.

Here’s something you won’t see on many other e-paper displays–passable (if a bit choppy) video.

And for Nemoptic’s final trick, they demonstrate that their display can be back-lit.

In its current format, Nemoptic’s display doesn’t appear to be anything to write home about in the resolution or contrast departments, but by relying on nematic technology–common to most LCD screens–it seems that the company has come up with a technology that is both versatile and, importantly, very cheap. For e-paper to become ubiquitous, it has to be disposable–just like the price tags on the front of store shelves.

Follow Christopher Mims on Twitter, or contact him via email.

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