We were supposed to get our "paperless office" over a decade ago. The prolifieration of Internet access and the birth of new file formats for distributing documents over the Web promised to finally banish paper from the desk once and for all. But look around a modern-day office and you’ll still find desks plastered in pulp. The problem: computer monitors suck for reading. They flicker and flash, look blurry compared to paper, and suck down loads of power just to display the same simple text.

Then came electronic paper.

As the name suggests, it displays a steady image like paper, looks as smooth and readable as paper, and requires almost zero energy. But unlike the real thing, it changes in the blink of an eye, turning one "sheet" of electronic paper into War and Peace with the right hardware. And the electronic book was born. From early starts like Sony’s eReader to the all-popular Amazon Kindle, electronic paper is changing the way we read. But what else can it do? Much as the uses for paper go well beyond binding it up into books, the uses for electronic paper are as wide as you can imagine, with many yet to be discovered. Let’s take a look at how modern electronic paper works, what clever products have been cooked up with it so far, and glimpse forward at the type of innovative products we might someday see this technology powering.

The Original Amazon Kindle

How it Works

It may sound tough to wrap your mind around a display that can change from black to white in an instant, then retain the finished image for weeks on end, but the technology used it actually relatively simple. Like the printed image in a magazine – every electronic paper image is composed of thousands of tiny dots that make up the finished product when viewed afar, like a mural. But rather than using unchangeable droplets of ink, electronic paper uses microcapsules: tiny clear balloons full of both white and black particles, both suspended in a clear fluid. Because the white particles are positively charged and the black particles are negatively charged, they can be easily separated by applying a charge from behind the screen with an electrode. As you’ll recall from high school physics, like charges repel one another, so a positive charge pushes all the white particles to the top – making the capsule appear white – and a negative charge pushes all the black particles to the top – making the capsule appear black. Multiply this entire process by thousands and millions of individual microcapsules spread across a sheet of plastic, combine it with a sophisticated electronic driver that can tell each one what to do individually with a net of electrodes, and you have an electronic paper display. Because the charge is only needed to move the particles, and they retain their positions afterward, electronic paper displays require no additional electricity to hold their images.

How E-Ink works

Unusual E Ink Devices

Everyone knows about popular devices like the Amazon Kindle, which helped bring electronic paper technologies to the mainstream. But electronic books only scratch the surface of what the technology can do.

For instance, one early and previously unseen implementation of electronic paper actually cropped up in Seiko’s Spectrum E Ink watch. The C-shaped band used a strip of flexible electronic paper over the top to make not just the face, but the entire band, the display. Although Seiko and E Ink demonstrated the prototype together in 2005, it didn’t become a commercial reality until 2006, and even then rumor has it that less than 500 were ever made, all priced at 262,500 yen – the modern equivalent of $2,700. In 2007, the company showed off a newer version catering to ladies, which wrapped entirely around the wrist and could be set to ‘efficiency’ for quick time telling, or ‘mystery’ for a more elegant, interperative telling of the time. To keep the entire display safe, it was wrapped 360 degrees around in sapphire crystal. Not surprisingly, the price didn’t go down much, staying at around $2,000. 

Seiko E-Ink watch

While Seiko was busy cooking up artistic uses for electronic paper, other companies were thinking along more practical lines. Lexar’s clever JumpDrive Mercury used a strip of E Ink dots to act as a kind of gas gauge for data capacity. While other companies had already figured out how to accomplish the same thing with LEDs when plugged in (when most users would already be one click away from finding out capacity anyway), the E Ink strip on the Mercury didn’t require any power, allowing the gauge to work all the time. Dig it out of your desk drawer after a month without use, and you’ll still know how much room it has left at a glance. The 1GB version originally retailed for $70, which was quite a sum, even at the time when flash drives were more expensive than we know them today. 

Lexar JumpDrive Mercury

Both these products tacked on quite a premium for the novelty of new technology, but electronic paper can be tailored for the masses, too. In October 2008, Esquire became the first magazine ever to feature an E Ink cover when it plastered the blinking line "The 21st Century Begins Now" across that month’s issue. The company produced 100,000 of the limited-edition magazines and sold them for $5.99 a pop on newsstands, just $2 more than the ordinary issue. Each magazine used six button-cell batteries to run the display for approximately 90 days, though it was specially programmed to leave the message in the on position when the batteries died. 

Esquire’s "The 21st Century Begins Now" issue

Phones have also begun to harness the practical battery-stretching power of E Ink displays. Motorola’s Motofone F3 may have largely flown under radar in the United States when it was released in 2006, but it was the first phone ever to use an E Ink display. Motorola chose the technology, along with a handful of other unusual features, to tailor the phones for developing countries, where long battery life, sunlight visibility and durability are all paramount. Samsung took the concept yet another step further with the Alias 2 in 2009. Rather than using electronic paper for the main display, it used it for the buttons, which allow the same set of squares to look like a QWERTY keyboard, number pad, or even directional buttons, depending on which function is active.

Motorola’s Motofone F3

Coming Down the Pipe

That’s all been done. But what’s possible?

For one, color. Fujitsu has already pioneered the technology and commercialized it with its FLEPiaeReaders, which display an amazing 260,000 colors. However, with refresh times up to eight seconds long just for a page of 64 colors, and prices over $1,000, the technology remains far frommainstream at the moment. Even so, the proof of concept exists. And when prices come down, you can expect color electronic paper displays to replace watt-suckling LCDs in digital picture frames. Themost notable electronic paper manufacturer, E Ink, hopes to launch color displays by the end of 2010, which it hopes will usher in an age of textbooks – not just novels – powered by electronic paper.

Fujitsu’s FLEPia eReaders

According to Sriram Peruvemba, vice president of marketing at E Ink, many devices that haven’t traditionally had screens will get them through electronic paper displays. "Handheld devices will have memory indicators and battery indicators." he said. "Just like the flash drive from Lexar, we would probably see some hard disk drives, those types of devices."

Flexible electronic paper products will also see the light of day. Like color displays, they already exist, at least in concept. Polymer Vision was working on the Readius flexible E Ink reader until it went bankrupt this July, and a number of other companies have also built prototypes, like Citizen’s giant bendable E Ink clock. Will we eventually abandon hard-backed electronic books in favor of gigantic copies that roll up likes the newspapers of yesteryear? Quite possibly.

Citizen’s giant bendable E Ink clock

Electronic paper can also get huge – literally. Toppan Printing Company already exhibited a wall-sized electronic newspaper back in 2005. Measuring 2.2 meters high and 2.6 meters wide, it was actually a combination of 272 smaller E Ink tiles. According to Peruvemba, the lack of bezel on an electronic paper display makes it theoretically scalable to any size through tiling, and the increasing volume of both displays and the drivers for them means prices will continue to fall. Esquire’s early foray into electronic paper for advertising will hardly be the last. The gigantic paper subway posters of today might turn into electronic paper models that rotate once a minute tomorrow. Perhaps billboards will follow, and one day, we might even run across sophisticated product boxes that animate and scroll through the features of gadgets within all on their own.

Toppan’s wall-sized electronic newspaper

To that end, flexible and low-cost E Ink screens could easily begin to perform tasks LCD screens never could – like taking over for paint. Why choose a color for your bedroom when you could change it daily? Or fill your wall with a mural of the Alps at the flick of a switch? Along the same lines, new methods for applying microcapsules – and controlling them – could lead to an age where electronic paper replaces more complex painted surfaces. Imagine painting your car virtually and applying decals the same way you might in a Need for Speed game, then walking out to the garage and checking out your work. With advances in electronic paper displays, there’s no reason it couldn’t become reality.

Conclusion

While we may know electronic paper today for its near-ubiquitous use in eBook readers, the flexibility of the technology creates possibilities far above and beyond that very basic use. Unlike flying cars and personal teleporters, the paperless office of the future may not be so far-fetched after all. And a clean desk is just the beginning.