Display technology's flexible future

Polymer Vision's CEO says his foldable e-book device will revolutionize mobile devices and that we will soon be able to fold up a TV and put it in a pocket.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
3 min read

SAN DIEGO--Steve Jobs said people "don't read anymore."

Karl McGoldrick hopes the visionary Apple CEO is actually wrong for once.

That's because McGoldrick is the CEO of Netherlands-based Polymer Vision, the only company that right now is working on making e-books in a form that's actually close to traditional books--ones that are mobile, bendable, and, above all, readable.

But the device, called Readius, is not just an e-book reader--it receives e-mail, text messages, and RSS feeds, makes phone calls, and keeps calendar and contact information--in addition to downloading books and newspapers wirelessly.

Readius uses e-ink to display text on its 5-inch foldout screen. Erica Ogg/CNET News.com

It caused quite the stir at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, when gadget blogs aplenty (including CNET) were able to get their hands on the prototype for the first time. But McGoldrick wants to move beyond gadget lovers and early adopters and make his company's vision work for mainstream buyers everywhere.

The problem that every mobile device maker runs into is essentially this: How can you balance the size of the screen so it's big enough to read and reasonably watch videos, while keeping the device dainty enough to fit in a pocket?

Although the entire industry has been on the hunt for the ultimate tiny all-in-one mobile device, that has yet to happen. The key, McGoldrick said, is not in the extra features a particular phone may boast, but the screen. In trying to combine consumer uses like watching videos, reading e-mail and books, and using productivity applications for the office, "that's where the display becomes deciding factor," he said.

"The mobile industry is evolutionary. (Manufacturers) keep adding bits and pieces to make the Swiss Army knife of mobile phones. They compete over the number of megapixels of the camera, and (amount of) memory. But in reality, the form factor was stuck," McGoldrick said in an interview here Tuesday at this week's U.S. Flat Panel Display Conference.

Outside of candybar, slider, and clamshell style phones, the "display was limited. So Apple took away the keyboard everyone was used to." But even with the iPhone's industry-leading 3.5-inch display, "that extended the industry to the absolute limit," McGoldrick said. Any bigger than that, and you're not toting around a sleek smartphone anymore; you're somewhere in the murky no-man's land of the ultramobile PC.

Polymer Vision's vision, which it came up with three years ago (as a business spun out from Philips Research), is finally coming to fruition. The Readius is the size of most small mobile phones, but has a 5-inch screen that folds up to close.

It uses E-ink, the same technology used in the Sony Reader and Amazon.com's Kindle, but Polymer Vision worked with E-Ink to come up with a thinner version of the technology so it would roll better. In addition, the Readius uses organic semiconductors in the layer underneath the E-ink that process transistors at very low temperatures so there's no need for glass backing to keep the heat away, like an LCD panel. Also, the organic semiconductor layer is malleable, which allows it to bend when folded, and not break.

Right now, the device is on track for release sometime this summer, though no price has been determined yet. Polymer Vision is still negotiating with mobile carriers and retailers that will sell the Readius to consumers in Europe, North America, and some markets in Asia.

But lest you agree with Jobs that e-books aren't anticipating what customers actually want to do with mobile devices, Polymer Vision has grander plans than just books for its technology. Internally, the company calls it the "dream machine"--a device that folds like an actual book and reveals an 8-inch color screen that automatically gets all the mobile content you want wirelessly.

"In four to five years, you can do video on a mobile roll-able device," McGoldrick said. There are mobile devices on the market right now that allow for watching video, and in some countries, broadcast television. "But the reality is, who wants to watch TV on that small display?" he asked. McGoldrick said that it's not pricing, or network quality, that's keeping portable video displays down--it's the size of the screen.

"It's like trying to push an elephant through a keyhole. If the keyhole gets bigger, the elephant gets through," he said.