E-Ink Holdings, which makes the display tech behind Amazon's Kindle e-reader, can now print updatable digital displays onto cloth. Yep...you're already imagining what Google or Facebook could do with the ad space on your T-shirt, aren't you? And the (horrible/wacky) possibilities don't stop there.
The black-and-off-white electronic paper found in the typical e-reader device is often the only real benefit of e-readers versus more full-functioning tablets (apart from price, in some cases). Fans say the display, being "closer" to emulating real ink on paper, is easier on the eyes, and it's definitely more sunlight-friendly than an LCD or OLED screen. But the technology seems to have stagnated since it arrived on the original Kindle, and Amazon's Jeff Bezos himself noted a color version was many years away.
That doesn't mean E-ink, the company behind the most successful electronic paper, has been doing nothing. They've been experimenting with different applications of their existing tech, as all forward-thinking innovators do, and have worked out how to print one type of e-ink screen onto conventional cloth, as well as the rip-stop material Tyvek that's used in yacht sails and toughened envelopes.
The technology is apparently fully developed, and merely awaits someone inventing a use-case and funding e-ink to produce a real product. You may notice it's not quite the same as a fully pixelated e-ink screen like the ones used in e-readers--instead it's been perfected for e-ink SURF display use (Segmented, Ultra-thin, Rugged and Flexible). This makes the system well suited as a flashing on-off sort of sign, but presumably there's not much stopping E-Ink from cleverly engineering it into a more complex array that emulates a basic 15-segment alphanumeric-capable display. And more precise pixels may be possible—making for a low-resolution black and white display on cloth.
Which instantly makes us imagine Google selling Wi-Fi-connected T-shirts that update with adverts based on the wearer's location and who's walking by; in our location-enabled age this is highly plausible. Would you wear an advertising T-shirt if Google paid you a stipend? Similar tricks could work wherever large amounts of fabric are displayed—suggesting advert-enabled window curtains or sails. Or maybe you could wear your Twitter feed or a smarmy animated gif smack across your chest. At this point we imagine mood-riddled teenagers using their T-shirts as a live-updating display to mirror their angsty inner thoughts...the mood ring for the 21st Century. If the price is right and the printable displays are durable, you never know what may happen.
[Image via Flickr user quartermane]