For the last 25 years people have talked about the idea of replacing paper with a material that looked like printed paper, felt like paper, was flexible, viewable in bright light and yet unlike paper could be written on and erased electronically.
The cost and environmental advantages of being able to reuse the same piece of paper thousands of times is obvious, as is the potential for new applications in information display.
Applications for the technology include digital, low-power portable displays, wearable displays, signs and posters of all sorts.
The need for a new display technology is widely recognised. There is a huge volume of information such as newspapers and magazines that is not accessible to people on the move, except in paper format, simply because they do not have a suitable device to display it. Light weight flexible — perhaps even roll-up — screens, would be one way to solve the problem.
Indeed whilst advances in data processing and storage have given us devices such as the iPod and the portable games console, display technology has not advanced considerably over the last decade and displays are still generally heavy, power hungry and expensive.
E-paper technologies are about to change this situation, offering designers and users a number of advantages. For example they use less power and are both lighter and more robust than the glass-based screens currently used in laptops as they are made of plastic. They are also much cheaper to manufacture, can be made in much larger panels, and perhaps most importantly, offer a far higher quality display and better reading experience than conventional displays.
For years, research laboratories, big companies and start-ups have been working hard to turn the idea of e-paper into a reality, talks were given, articles written, concept models built, but until recently very few practical solutions to the problem had emerged. This has led many to dismiss flexible electronic paper displays as a technology that was all promise but no product. Now prototypes have finally arrived from two companies, Philips Polymer Vision of the Netherlands and Plastic Logic of the UK.
"We shall be shipping fully functional high quality engineering samples to customers interested in incorporating flexible screen technology into their products in the fourth quarter of 2005," says Hans Driessen of Philips Polymer Vision.