E Ink pushing boundaries of display technology

Having already come to dominate the e-reader market, E Ink is looking to find new markets for its electronic display technology, from smart cards to USB sticks.

Founded in 1997 as a spin-off of the MIT Media Lab, E Ink holds over 150 patents as a developer of electronic paper displays in applications such as e-books and e-newspapers for customers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony.

Sriram K. Peruvemba, chief marketing officer for E Ink, said the idea for E Ink’s electronic ink process came when an MIT professor was on vacation and he ran out of books to read. He found himself wishing his book could transform to new content, but in the same format. When he got back to work, he talked with his students and they came up with the concept of e-paper.

“It resembles printed paper better than any other technology,” said Peruvemba. “People say what did you do to make it look like paper, but it really is paper in electronic form.”

Peruvemba said to imagine a snow globe with black as well as white dots, and look at it from the top. By applying voltage, you can cause either white or black particles to come to the surface. It’s the same material, he said, that’s used to make paper white.

When the idea for E Ink was spun out of MIT in 1997, the idea was to build products for existing markets. They began with digital signage for stores, and wrist watch displays.

“It was more readable than traditional displays and it’s more image persistent, so once you put it on the display you can unplug the power,” said Peruvemba. It’s thin, light and sunlight readable.”

In 2004, Peruvemba said E Ink had the choice to stick with signage and wrist watches or go after e-books, an emerging market that hadn’t taken off yet.

The company decided to put all its effort into e-books, abandoning signage and wrist watches. Its first e-book was launched in Japan with Sony, but it didn’t succeed due to the lack of content, the cost of content, and the cost of memory.

Two years later they tried again in the U.S., and Peruvemba said E Ink has been shipping more and more displays ever since, from 100,000 in 2006 to over 10 million in 2010. The company has come to dominate the market, with 90 per cent of e-redes sold using E Ink displays.

With its success with e-books, Peruvemba said E Ink has since revisited signage and wrist watches, and is also looking at other applications, such as smart cards and battery indicators.

“We have probably dozens of new ideas,” said Peruvemba. “One I think will see traction in the next few years are smart credit cards.”

To replace the security code currently used on credit cards, a small digital display would dynamically display a new code with each transaction, with the battery lasting “forever.” Other new applications include battery indicators for devices, and storage space gauges for USB sticks.

“In those applications the display is a small fraction of the device itself. In a USB stick it’s less than one dollar,” said Peruvemba.

E Ink is also now producing colour displays. Launched in November, Peruvemba said they put a colour filter on top of a black and white display. The filter takes each pixel and breaks it into four sub-pixels. It has the same benefits of monochrome, such as low power, thin, light, and a superior reading experience.

It’s not without drawbacks though. The colours aren’t as saturated as LCD, and while it can do animation, it’s not fast enough to do video. Peruvemba said they’re working to improve the performance in the next generation of products.

“Our biggest competitor isn’t other display technologies, it’s printed paper,” said Peruvemba. “It’s so strong, it’s been around for 500 years, it’s inexpensive, and it’s very readable. There’s still no display technology that can beat printed paper, but we’ll eventually get there.”

Follow Jeff Jedras on Twitter: @JeffJedrasCDN.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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