Thursday, January 18th, 2007
In the near future, most of our media will be found on a hard drive. 35mm film is rapidly going extinct, CDs are giving way to MP3s. Filmmakers like David Lynch have announced that they will never use anything but digital video cameras. Meanwhile, Netflix has introduced movie downloads. And whether the execs are ready or not, television is being revolutionized by YouTube among others. But our most ancient media of all hasn’t budged: books. Sure we read and write on computers for school and for work, but at the end of the day when you curl up with a good book, it’s unlikely to be on your laptop. Why hasn’t the e-book taken off? And what happens when it does?
Books are long overdue (ahem) for the digital revolution. For the rest of the week, statastic! will consider the future of e-ink, e-paper, and e-books. What are the implications for our public libraries? Stay tuned for a case study on the e-library of the not-so-distant future. But first things first: You can’t have an e-book without e-ink.
In the 1970s, the legendary Xerox PARC first developed something they called electronic ink, or e-ink. E-ink is comprised of millions of microcapsules the diameter of a human hair. Each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a minimal electrical charge is applied, the microcapsules flip and remain flipped until the next electrical impulse tells them otherwise.
E-ink is perhaps best explained by what it is not. It is not an LCD or a plasma display that you may be accustomed to seeing on a laptop computer. Unlike laptop displays, e-ink is not backlit, meaning that if you want to read in bed, you’d better have a light on. The fact that e-ink doesn’t rely on backlighting results in several advantages:
- -Easier to read: E-ink has nearly the same resolution and reflectivity as printed text. Reading using reflected light is much easier on the eyes than backlit screens, and much easier to read in sunlight. Unlike plasma or LCD flat screens, you can view e-ink from several angles just like regular paper.
- -Flexible e-paper: Because e-ink doesn’t require backlighting, it also doesn’t require a rigid glass screen. The simplicity of e-ink means that it can be paired with flexible materials creating an e-paper that can be bent, or even rolled up.
- -No need to recharge: Once the electrical current tells the microcapsules whether to turn black or white, they remain in that state indefinitely with no power input. A page using e-ink (also called e-paper) can remain open indefinitely without drawing down of a battery source. You can read thirty books before you need to plug in an e-reader using e-ink.
Currently several companies are pursuing e-ink and e-paper. Plastic Logic, the developer of the “E Ink,” announced on January 3rd, 2007 that it had completed a $100 million round of equity financing. Their research currently is focused on flexible displays that will enable an electronic reader to hold hundreds of e-books and weigh less than a thin newspaper. For video on the flexible display prototypes, click here.
Several companies have already licensed E Ink for their own devices. Sony’s $300 e-reader holds 80 books, weighs about as much as a paperback and can turn 7,500 pages before it needs a charge. Star eBook just released its 6.2 ounce e-reader in Japan, claiming that it’s the lightest reader on the market. And late in 2006, Hitachi released a 4,000 color e-reader, an innovation that could rapidly earn some converts.
If the $300 to $500 price tag seems unrealistic, consider this: In 1996 DVD players hit the American market for about $600 (in 1996 dollars, no less). The least expensive DVD player at Walmart.com is now $30, less than 5% of the price a decade ago. If e-readers have similar adoption rates, you might be able to pick up an e-reader for less than the price of a hard cover within a few years.
Tomorrow: the e-book market
The Russian Futurists - imagine the Magnetic Fields playing with a full electronic symphony underwater. Try to pick out the honking geese on the track “Our Pen’s Out of Ink.” A relative inconvenience in this age of e-ink.