[Washington Post] Printing's Future May Be Written in E Ink.

I Find Karma (adam@cs.caltech.edu)
Tue, 4 Aug 1998 04:54:34 -0700

The Washington Post has now jumped on the E Ink bandwagon that we forked
from Fortune in July


The following article appears at


but is included below for the lazy URL clicker. Jacobson is completely
right: nothing beats paper for presentation of information. This is why
my greenbook diaries are handwritten in paper notebooks and not typed
onto some computer screen.

I also like the concept of "a page that prints itself." I wonder why
Xerox PARC doesn't have a project like this going on right now.

Electronic newspapers by Y2K do not seem likely. But someday before we
die, certainly...

> Printing's Future May Be Written in Electronic Ink
> by John Schwartz, The Washington Post 08/03/98
> Joseph Jacobson thinks computer screens are overrated: overweight,
> overpriced and overly fragile. He's the kind of guy who sings the praises
> of paper and ink over pixels and bits. Paper, he says admiringly, "is
> really a beautiful presentation of information. We should not step
> backward" by squinting into some computer screen all day long.
> But don't mistake Jacobson for a Luddite. Instead, the assistant professor
> at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's futuristic Media Lab is
> trying to infuse high technology into lowly ink and materials like paper.
> Jacobson's quest: creating an inexpensive new kind of display for
> computers and more that is as easy on the eyes as the pages of a newspaper
> or novel. Paper, after all, is about as lightweight and flexible as it
> gets -- if you don't believe that, try folding your new laptop into the
> shape of a paper airplane and launching it across the room. Why not, he
> suggests, combine the best elements of paper, ink and computing?
> Jacobson and colleagues have gone a long way toward achieving that goal.
> In the July 16 edition of the scientific journal Nature, Jacobson and
> co-authors described trailblazing efforts to come up with an electronic
> ink that can change from black to white on a simple electrical charge, and
> can be printed on a paper-like medium. The result: a page, or a sign, that
> prints itself, once it receives its electronic instructions to flip colors
> in a specific pattern. Jacobson sees the super-ink as a cheap alternative
> to today's liquid-crystal displays under glass.
> Jacobson's magic ink is actually a potion of tiny plastic capsules about
> the width of a human hair formed in a suspension of dark ink and white
> particles. Once the bubbles close around the ink and particles, they can
> be painted onto any medium.
> The particles carry a negative electrical charge, so applying a negative
> charge to the upper surface of the capsule drives the particles to the far
> side of the microcapsule, making the ink look dark from above. Reversing
> the charge sends the white bubbles swimming through the ink to the
> surface, and the ink appears to be white. The scientists charge the array
> in patterns, and words or images appear.
> The process of shifting colors takes about one-fiftieth of the power used
> by the average screen display: It doesn't take much of a charge to push
> the bubbles around, and they tend to stay where they are after being
> moved, without requiring the refresher charges normal screens need.
> Jacobson has licensed the technology to a Cambridge company, E Ink, which
> has already attracted nearly $16 million in capital from high-tech venture
> funds and technology and media companies; he still consults with the
> company one day each week.
> E Ink executive Russ Wilcox is confident that the company will develop its
> first simple moneymaking applications by next year, and that whole
> electronic newspapers will be possible by the year 2000.
> J.C. Penney is already looking at E Ink's wares as a way to someday place
> cheap digital signs throughout its stores, connected by pager radio
> frequencies to the home office. Edward Sample, Penney's manager of
> research, looks forward to the day prices can be changed nationwide with a
> set of simple computer commands. Printing up and distributing signs is
> expensive and wasteful, Sample said, and the prospect of being able to
> automate the process is "exciting." "We're anxious to begin evaluating
> some of their early technology," Sample said.
> From such humble beginnings, the technology eventually could be used in
> computers and hand-held devices or even patches on clothing or whole
> newspapers. Ultimately, Jacobson believes, the technology could even lead
> to the creation of a super-book. A reader could pick up the bookish
> contraption and select a title from thousands by using buttons and a
> display built into the spine. After making the selection, the reader would
> open the book to find the proper text -- along with images and even
> animation -- in the familiar form of a volume. It would be a one-book
> library.
> Sound like science fiction? The book-like computer was indeed foreseen by
> author Neal Stephenson, whose novel "The Diamond Age" describes a kind of
> active paper, as well as The Young Ladies' Primer, a powerful computerized
> volume that entertains and teaches its young owners as they mature,
> growing in complexity as their minds develop. When Stephenson saw
> Jacobson's technology last year, "I thought it was ingenious, and I just
> loved it for its simplicity."
> Efforts in the 1980s to utilize similarly electrophoretic substances lost
> ground to liquid crystal displays because the inks had a very short
> lifespan, said Robert Wisnieff, an IBM researcher who wrote an
> accompanying news article about the Jacobson paper in Nature. Jacobson's
> contribution, Wisnieff noted, was to micro-encapsulate the ink, granting
> it long life and stability.
> Will the brave new signs prove to be a blessing, or a curse? We all know
> what happened with laser printers -- an explosion of do-it-yourself
> publishing, much of it so ugly that it hurt the eyes just to glance at it.
> But E Ink's Wilcox said that the new signs will reduce clutter by allowing
> stores to be more specific: "Communication without the clutter," Wilcox
> said, means "you've got fewer signs, but they're working harder. . . . The
> market is going to punish companies that overuse this newfound ability to
> communicate," Wilcox said.
> Don't expect to pick up a piece of active paper any time soon, though. The
> science of electronic ink, Wisnieff said, is "real young at the moment."
> The company has yet to prove that the ink can be manufactured in lots
> larger than those required for the current research effort.
> And even if E Ink makes tons of the ink, if the company expects to provide
> the clarity of the printed page it needs to develop a method of delivering
> the bubble-flipping charge to precisely the right places. So far the
> researchers have been able only to generate fairly simple characters by
> directing power to a relatively limited number of panels.
> To demonstrate the technology, E Ink has produced a sign made with about a
> dozen panels, each one set up in a mosaic pattern. Those tiles can be
> turned on and off individually, allowing the user to create letters and
> numbers. When a button is pressed, the display reads "Think Ink!" It's
> connected to a pager so that messages could be transmitted via radio
> waves.
> To get the resolution of a newspaper page, however, would require the kind
> of grid found in computer screens and would cost hundreds of dollars for
> each display. Jacobson and the E-Inkers are exploring methods of painting
> electronic circuitry onto the ink's backing to do the job. "There are
> challenges," said Ian Morrison, an ink wizard recruited to the company
> from Xerox, "but it's all imaginable."


I hate people... And when I say I hate people, I count myself. I
haven't done anything drastic to change the world.
-- Cameron Diaz in _USA Today_ 7/30/98