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Electronic Ink is not science fiction

eInk is one of the most overlooked inventions in publishing. This electronic ink technology has been around for a decade, and by rights should now be far more prevalent than it is today. But things may be about to change, as innovators are starting to use eInk to make amazing new products, including some that may cause big changes technical publications.

By Tony Self

eInk is the technology used in most dedicated eBook readers, such as Kindle and Nook. It is not really a "screen" technology. It is closer to a "paper" technology. In Australia, as in many other countries, "paper" bank notes are actually made of a plastic (polymer). The polymer notes include clear panels containing holograms. These polymer bank notes have nothing to do with eInk, but they help illustrate why eInk can be viewed as a new type of "paper", rather than a new type of computer screen.

eInk is a coating of tiny particles held between two sheets of plastic. These eInk particles are like microscopic ping-pong balls, and are white on one side and black on the other. When sensitised, they can roll over to display their white side or their black side. To all intents and purposes, a sheet of plastic coated with eInk behaves like paper. Except that the words on the page can dissolve and reform as new words. Although work is going on to perfect colour eInk, at the moment it's predominantly only black and white. That happens to suit publications that are text-based, such as novels, and that is why eInk has been successfully used within eBook readers. eInk sheets are "light-reflective" (like paper), not "light-emitting" (like screens), so can be read in direct sunlight. Tiny amounts of power are required to roll the ping-pong balls over, but once a page is displayed, the balls stay in that position without using any power. This is what gives eBook readers their long battery life. eInk is better than paper in many respects, as the text can be resized, and a single page can be re-used over and over (making it lightweight).

And it is cheaper than paper. (Yes, you read that correctly. A single sheet of eInk plastic can display hundreds or thousands or millions of pages. A sheet of paper can display one. A sheet of eInk costs a few dollars at the moment, but will eventually cost a few cents.) Even an eBook reader, which includes a computer, data storage, dictionary, audio reader, touchscreen interface and USB connection, costs around $50.

Innovators are hard at work re-thinking printing. Some supermarket shelf price labels are now eInk plastic with an embedded RFID microchip, allowing the prices to be updated with a handheld scanner. (The radio frequency emitted by the scanner provides enough power to roll the ping-pong balls.) A number of manufacturers are selling eInk watches. A second (eInk) screen on the back of smart phones is becoming a standard feature (interestingly, connected to the phone by Bluetooth rather than wire!).

The possibilities are endless, and it's up to us to turn these into realities.

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Originally published...

This article was originally published in the IconLogic I Came, I Saw, I Learned blog and newsletter in April 2014.