E-readers may or may not emerge as the must-have gadget of 2010, but nearly all the devices out now have a problem–their screens only do gray scale, and move too slowly for video. But Qualcomm’s got an answer for that.
Mirasol, a Qualcomm subsidiary, has got an e-reader on the way that’s likely to be the breakout e-reader that beats all other e-readers–yes, even the successful Kindle. The technology exists as a demonstrator mock-up for now, but the device’s screen, busily under development, is the real key: It’s sunlight-readable, meaning it outclasses LCDs for outdoors e-book browsing; it’s color-capable (color’s the reason the Barnes and Noble rumors got us excited); and its pixel-refresh rate zooms past standard e-ink tech so that it can actually render video.
The trick is how the new e-paper works–it uses “interferometric modulation” instead of the electrophoretic system other e-ink makers use. Here’s how it works: A suite of thin membranes is overlaid on top of a mirrored surface. Incoming light passes through the layers, bounces off the mirror and back through the membranes where it gets refracted, creating colors the same way a prism does by splitting white light up. The membranes have two states, and switches between them via a tiny dose of electricity. So like e-ink they’re stable when displaying a pixel or when they’re blank, which makes them much more energy efficient than an LCD. By much more, I mean much more–something like 250 to 500 times less. The knock-on effect is that an e-reader with this tech will have a potentially huge battery life. It’s also about the same price as an LCD, but it’s greener thanks to fewer toxic chemicals and its low energy consumption.
Mirasol has already worked up a 5.7-inch screen, and expects to eventually launch several e-reader versions with wireless powers, touchscreens, or QWERTY keypads. And when it does, these beasties are going to shake up the nascent e-reader world.
This is exciting for one reason: This is how e-readers should be: Color-capable so they can render magazines accurately, able to play video so you can use them as media players, and made with a fast screen tech that gives you a less frustrating Web-surfing experience than you get on, say, a Kindle. There’s just a single problem: Dedicated e-readers with this tech are doomed. No-one’s going to carry around a smartphone, a notebook or netbook PC, and an e-reader with a color screen. The consumer will want to haul a single device instead of many, and that’s going to be a Tablet PC for the simple reason that it can do the job of all the others put together.
Mirasol’s invention, and even its e-readers, isn’t a strong case for caveat malus. Nope–Apple’s iTablet will do much more than e-reader hardware can, and despite yesterday’s extravagant rumor, is likely to use LCD tech, at least in the first incarnation. LCD is tried and trusted, with predictable viewability, response time, and battery-eating powers, and Apple has that $500 million deal with LG to think about. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see an interferometric screen popping up on all your mobile devices in five years–it’s a tech that seems just too damn clever to be true.