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Will Faster, Better E-Ink Save the E-Reader?

Without e-ink’s technology, e-readers as an entire genre of portable gizmos wouldn’t really exist: The paper and ink-like display is their main selling point. Yet e-ink’s far from perfect, which is why you’ll want to see next-gen stuff to see how it’ll improve.

e-ink

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Without e-ink’s technology, e-readers as an entire genre of portable gizmos wouldn’t really exist: The paper and ink-like display is their main selling point. Yet e-ink’s far from perfect, which is why you’ll want to see next-gen stuff to see how it’ll improve.

The chaps at RedFerret scored a nice hit with this news. They managed to speak to Sriram Peruvemba, VP of Marketing at E Ink (the company behind the tech,) and he not only described some of the progress made in improving e-ink, but he gave them a demo on video.

E-ink displays don’t work like LCDs do. The pixels in an e-ink display are like little voids with mixed particles of white and black pigment inside. When they’re excited with an electrical charge applied to tiny electrodes at the top and bottom of each void “bubble,” the pigment particles rearrange–in one case you’d have the white particles at the top, hiding the black ones below and thus the pixel appears white, and with the opposite charge the black pigment pieces get excited to the top, and thus the pixel’s visible color is black. The displays benefit from high contrast, a visual experience very similar to ink on paper, and very low power requirements: The pixels only demand power when they’re being flipped on or off, and otherwise stay static.

But, e-ink is slow to update, due largely to the physics of the way it works–and anyone with a Kindle will tell you how it takes a moment to flip between pages in a book, an act which also involves a weird momentary inversion of the colors. This severely limits the tech’s usefulness for purposes like Web browsing, and makes video viewing impossible. And that pits devices like the Kindle in a very unfavorable light when compared to the wonders of multi-purpose, full-color touchscreen tablet PCs like Apple’s iPad.

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Enter e-ink’s next-gen tech. First up, it’s got double the contrast ratio of current e-ink screens…which will be a welcome fact for those users attracted by the display and e-readers, but put off by slightly gray finish of the displays as currently available. Secondly, it’s fast. How much faster we don’t know. But from the demo video below, you can see it’s swift enough to deliver animations.

And that suddenly takes e-readers into a whole new dimension. They’ll not be able to compete with the full video content that can be shown on LCD screens, but an animation-capable e-ink e-reader will enable some of the rich-content designs that are surely the future for newspapers and magazines in digital format. Peruvemba also demonstrated another variant of the tech that results in a nearly indestructible display, making it ideal for the textbook market, as RedFerret notes.

Will this technology “save” the e-reader, which I’ve already suggested will have but a brief time in the sun? It depends on how quickly it can be shoehorned into saleable gadgets, and how much it adds (or maybe even takes away!) from the cost of the total device. With some questions about the veracity of claims e-ink is less eye-straining than LCD, it’s really only the price bracket and battery longevity that remain as the selling points of e-readers compared to tablet PCs…so we’ll have to see what gizmos arrive on sale before we can answer this big poser. On the whole, I’d be inclined to think the answer is “no,” though.

Kit QR Twitter

To keep up with this news in a more real-time setting, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too. (And if you’ve no idea what that spotty-looking thing is, then find out here.)

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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