E-paper turns a corner

Start-up E Ink and partner Philips are set to demonstrate a working prototype of electronic paper that they say features a sharper resolution than ever before.

Start-up E Ink and Dutch giant Philips Electronics plan to showcase working prototypes of "electronic paper" at a U.S. trade show this week.

The engineering samples have been developed using components likely to be in the shipping model, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink. In addition, the panels will feature a pixel resolution higher than anything previously shown.

The devices have been developed for an unnamed customer and feature custom-designed components from Philips.

"This is the first time E Ink and Philips have integrated such custom components into a fully functional display," said Jim Veninger, a general manager of Philips' display division.

The prototypes are being shown in a booklike, dual-screen case designed by Philips, with a display that features a resolution of 160 pixels per inch.

This is significantly higher than anything demonstrated previously, according to E Ink. The two companies have been working together since early 2001 and expect e-paper products to go on sale in 2004.

The e-paper reader will be displayed at the Society for Information Display Exposition and Symposium in Baltimore this week.

Separately, Japanese company Matsushita announced last week that it will launch an e-book in Asia at the end of the year.

E-paper prototype Like the e-paper device, Matsushita's e-book will have a monochrome screen, with images and text displayed with a bluish tinge. But it will be based on modified low-power liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology, rather than on electronic paper, according to Matsushita. Expectations are that the device will last six months on two AA-size batteries.

However, the Sigma Book--Matsushita's name for its product--bears a striking similarity to the E Ink-Philips device on display this week.

"Electronic ink" is based on a microcapsule: An electrically sensitive white chip that floats in a ball full of black dye. The chip rises or falls in the dye depending on an electrical charge. Several microcapsules are sandwiched between a piece of steel foil and a piece of clear plastic. Unlike LCDs, they don't need to be backlit for an image to be visible.

Displays using electronic ink technology tend to consume less power than LCDs, as they don't require a continuous supply of power to render images: Once the microcapsules are electrically charged, they can hold the image without needing any more power.

CNET's Richard Shim contributed to this report. CNETAsia's John Lui reported from Singapore.