Digital paper turns a new page

Lucent and E Ink agreement will allow E Ink to put Lucent's printable transistors on its digital paper.

Start-up E Ink Corp. announced on Tuesday a partnership with Lucent Technologies to combine E Ink's digital paper technology with Lucent's research into printable organic transistors.

The two companies hope that by merging the technologies, they can create plastic sheets of "electronic paper" -- mimicking the weight and flexibility of real paper but capable of displaying text and graphics like a computer monitor.

Together, Lucent and E Ink "have all the components to build a prototype," said Pierre Wiltzius, director of condensed matter research at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs. "We will be working on it over the next year." Lucent announced several breakthroughs in plastic transistors last year.

The key for the companies is to make the manufacturing process more reliable, said Wiltzius. "What we will have an eye on is manufacturability -- not just making (single displays). The work will be much closer to D [development] than R&D [research and development]." Wiltzius warned that initial product will not be overly impressive. "The first embodiment will not have many pixels, perhaps a hundred or so on a flexible plastic sheet like a slide. Once that is accomplished, scaling up (adding more transistors) is an easier problem."

In the end, both companies expect the electronic displays to cost far less to make than today's flat-panel displays. "Much of the cost of today's (flat panel displays) are in building the factories," said Paul Drzaic, director of display technology for the US startup, who estimated that a state-of-the-art LCD factory would cost $1bn (£.61bn) to build in the US. "For our technology, we use the equivalent of a high-end printing press, which cost more on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars."

In the end, a much cheaper factory will mean a much cheaper product. Lucent's Bell Labs unveiled a "stamping" process earlier this year that would allow transistors to be printed on plastics by equipment resembling a printing press more than silicon chip. "The materials that go into electronic ink are not expensive," he said. "Moreover, if we print out quantities similar to major publishing houses, the cost could come down to that of paper."

Still, don't expect paper to be obsolete just yet -- the digital version is still years away. "Even at the earliest that you might imagine digital paper, we are still looking three to five years down the road," said E Ink's Drzaic.

Until then, other applications may benefit from the technology. Drzaic listed smart cards, rewriteable store-front displays, and wearable computing printed on clothes as possible future products. "The first application could be a high-resolution sign," he said.

Today, the only real-world products created by E Ink are about 10 large-area displays being tried out by JC Penny stores.