E Ink writes new future for displays

A display technology start-up is creating a type of electronic "ink" that could lead to paper-thin screens by mid-decade.

A display technology start-up is creating a type of electronic "ink" that could lead to paper-thin screens by mid-decade.

E Ink will present and demonstrate its technology at the Society for Information Display's conference, which will take place June 3 to June 8 in San Jose, Calif.

E Ink's electronic ink is based on microcapsules that Vice President Russ Wilcox describes as similar to "a bunch of tiny magic 8-balls"--or electrically sensitive white chips that float in a ball of black dye. The chips rise or fall in the dye depending on an electric charge.

The technology is similar to "electric paper" devised by Xerox spin-off Gyricon Media. The Xerox method uses tiny balls colored white on one side, black on the other, encapsulated in an oily liquid. An electrical charge is applied to rotate the balls.

Electronic ink will give future displays the look of paper, said Wilcox, a co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink.

Displays are often the most power-consuming and expensive component on a device, and manufacturers are constantly looking for methods to improve battery life and lower cost.

"The electronic ink displays have tremendous potential for power-saving because the displays maintain their images when the power is off," IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "However, all this still remains to be proven."

The eventual goal for E Ink is to deliver paper-thin displays that look like ink on paper and can be wirelessly updated with new content.

In February, E Ink signed a $7.5 million manufacturing agreement with Philips Components to bring its displays to market in 2003. Color displays are expected in 2004, and displays as thin as paper are expected in 2005, according to Wilcox.

"The displays look like overhead projections--essentially black writing with a white light behind it," O'Donnell said. "However, they aren't the holy grail of displays yet because they don't support fast-moving video or color."

E Ink's first displays will be monochrome and have been earmarked for devices such as e-books and personal digital assistants (PDAs) because of their potential for low-power consumption, as well as clarity and brightness.

Another issue for E Ink's technology will be timing, IDC analyst Kevin Burden said.

"How significant a factor multimedia will be on PDAs by 2003 will be an issue," Burden said. "If it is a significant feature, which is what some wireless and PDAs companies would have you believe, then not being able to support moving video could be an obstacle."

At the upcoming Society for Information Display conference, E Ink will demonstrate its technologies, including a prototype of a 12.1-inch laptop display with an 800-by-600 pixel resolution using electronic ink.

CNET's David Becker contributed to this report.