At this point in the history of technology, most of us have become pretty familiar with electronic paper or “e-paper”—it is the wild invention that is responsible for the high-contrast black-and-white screens in our eBook readers. It produces the non-backlit, sharp and focused images that enable us to endure marathon digital reading with visuals that are easy on the eyes.

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While e-paper was originally developed in the 1970’s, the technology experienced a slow progression until the 90’s, and didn’t really see great commercialization until the mid 2000’s. The initial mass emergence of e-paper in the post-millennium era was quiet; most folks did not know or understand the difference between electronic-paper displays (EPD) and LCD technology in the early days of e-paper (and most probably didn’t care). This was the era just before color LCDs were commonplace, and black-and-white LCD screens dominated the digital market. E-paper flew under-the-radar because it looked similar to the B&W dot-matrix LCDs that were on everything from calculators to coffee makers. It’s sort-of a shame, because e-paper would have been a great battery-saver in things like the early-generation models of Apple® iPods, but it was in such small demand, that it wasn’t always practical—and its slow refresh rate prevented it from displaying most video formats.

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One of the main reasons that e-paper had such an awkward start was that color LCD technology had become affordable and practical by the time that e-paper had become a known and viable display solution. EPD technology lacked the capabilities necessary to produce the jaw-droppingly prismatic visuals that LCD technology was providing in most handheld devices. It made sense for most consumers to buy tablets and PDAs (yes, PDAs) that could support video playback among other media-related formats. The interesting part of this, however, is that it was this lack of wow-factor from e-paper that ultimately proved to be its greatest defining characteristic: it offered a very raw and analog feel—something which managed to coax stubborn print-only purists into picking-up a digital device like a Sony Reader™ or an Amazon Kindle (or more recently, a Barnes & Noble Nook®). The aesthetic appearance of e-paper images continues to offer the feel and the attitude of an anti-digital experience, and it is that rarity in electronically-powered devices that makes electronic paper technology so special and desirable for certain applications.

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In recent years, the initially small niche of applications for e-paper has grown, but maybe not as substantially as might have been anticipated. Some might remember obscure applications of the technology to devices such as those in Lexar’s JumpDrive line of USB flash-drives, or even in the filter-life display indicators on higher-end Brita® water filter models. But aside from these and a few neat contraptions here-and-there like some SEIKO wristwatches and the now-forgotten Geode by iCache, e-paper has had a difficult time breaking past the barrier of e-readers.

Pursuing the Possibilities of Electronic Paper

Despite demonstrating a decades-long inability to really revolutionize the electronics market, e-paper has continued to evolve progressively over the years, albeit, not without a struggle. Recently, it has seen increased interest and investment from top developers like Samsung, Epson, Bridgestone and Delta. One of the most noteworthy proprietors for the future of e-paper, however, is Qualcomm—an enormous California-based company primarily known for producing semiconductors, satellite and cellular phone technologies.

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All of these companies, plus a few others, have pushed their own lines of color EPD technologies in recent years, and some have backed-out of the game altogether not long after entering the industry. It is only within the past three years that the first viable color e-paper technologies have begun to emerge, and with that, there have been many early investors and many tedious beginnings. Naturally, adding RGB color capability to e-paper and upping its refresh rate so that it can support video playback are the game-changers that can give it the potential to make the profound impact that black-and-white EPD technologies never managed to. At the same time, however, LCD just keeps getting better, and that lingering threat is scaring-off investment both internally and from from 3rd-party investors.

Considering the Technology Itself

Most black-and-white EPD technology (like that common in most e-readers) is the product of E Ink Corporation, which for many years was a privately-held Boston-based company that pioneered its proprietary and industry-leading electrophoretic ink. While the details of this technology are relatively complex, the basic gist is simple: two plates contain a liquid between them which has black and white particles suspended in it; charges applied through the plates attract and repel the particles accordingly, so that an image is generated in B&W. With that in mind, it is easy to imagine the difficulties associated with trying to create color images using the same principles…two opposite plates plus two opposite charges can yield two opposite colors—so how do you create more colors? There are more than several different ways that this is being done, and unlike the communal use of E Ink technology across a spectrum of competing manufacturers, it is very clear that the developers and manufacturers competing in color e-paper technology have opted to pursue their own distinct paths in this emerging battle. It is only within the past year or so that the major key players in the face-off have begun to claim their territory and their stakes in the industry, as it has proven to be a great financial loss for most companies that have entered it, and has caused many to drop-out.

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One of the most promising color EPD technologies to have surfaced thus far is Qualcomm®’s Mirasol™ product. While still under-development in many respects, it is one of the first color e-paper displays capable of actually generating vibrant color images with ultra-high contrast and definition—not “multi-color” images with clarity specs that would be questionably-marketable on the open market. It also has a refresh rate capable of rendering video playback—a huge plus.

Mirasol is unique in that the technology is a complete satellite from most others in the e-paper industry. Mirasol is actually Qualcomm’s trade-name for their interferometric modular display technology, or, “IMOD”, which uses hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrored surfaces and the principles of reflection to bend light and filter it into wavelengths that the human eye interprets as distinct colors—pretty cool stuff. In order to achieve this feat, each “pixel” space is comprised of a reflective membrane and a stack of film. When charge is applied to the membrane, the size and shape of the air gap that separates it from the film changes and bends the incoming light accordingly, reflecting only a specific wavelength (or color) back to the viewer for that pixel. Like many of history’s great inventions, IMOD technology was inspired by the shimmering, iridescent wings of butterflies, which exhibit the same physics principles as the basis for IMOD—hence the butterfly logo that Qualcomm has chosen to brand Mirasol with.

Currently, Qualcomm is planning its launch for the Toq™, which is an android-interactive smartwatch featuring a Mirasol display—but the anticipated October 10th release seemed to swim away somehow, like so many others have in the short life that the color e-paper industry has lived:

In 2012, Qualcomm halted the production of most Mirasol displays, and began to show signs of backing-out of the color e-paper market altogether like Bridgestone ultimately did along with some of its other former competitors. Yet, Qualcomm is still marketing and innovating, and it might just be the Toq and the company’s shift toward smaller devices that could save the day and spread the word about the potential for color e-paper technology. Functioning prototypes of the Toq have been released and reviewed and only time will tell if the small device will be the first in a line of forthcoming products to give a name and purpose to the future of color-savvy e-paper.

(iPad vs. Kindle images via Keith Peters and BIT-101.com)
(Color e-paper Bridgestone tablet via Chris Davies and SlashGear.com)
(Seiko Spirit wristwatch image via Michael Kozlowski and GoodEReader.com)
(Ultra-thin Seiko SVRD001 wristwatch image via Alexander Turcic and MobileRead.com)
(E Ink technology diagram via E Ink Corporation)
(Image of Mirasol display showing magazine titles via Om Malik and GigaOM)
(Qualcomm Toq images via Scott Stein and CNET Reviews)

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