Flexible eInk screens – the possibilities

For all the talk of flexible eInk screens there’s not really been much discussion of what their actual impact would be. Let’s explore if there’s more to flexible eInk than we realize.

What are the Obvious Benefits of flexible eInk screens? 

The first few benefits that spring to mind are pretty significant -

  1. Unbreakable or difficult to break screens.  
  2. The option to make eReaders foldable and/or rollable and thus more convenient and portable.
  3. A similar, but not identical, benefit is the possibility to give small form factor devices screens that are double or triple in size.
  4. The ability to expand use of eInk screens to a variety of non-flat products i.e. watches, clothing, etc.

Take a look at this video (00:25 onwards; sort of not safe for work; some people could be offended by intro/outro/a few of the designs) for what eInk based, infinitely redesignable T-Shirts could be like.

What are some of the other possible benefits of flexible eInk screens?

With a little thought we get into some really interesting uses –  

  1. Using rolling screens or double screens to eliminate eInk reload delays.

    You could refresh the part that is not currently shown while the reader is reading the part that is shown.

    This could be in the form of a back screen that refreshes while the front screen is being read and then replaces the front screen.
    Or it could literally be a rolling display that scrolls around and refreshes lines of eInk before they are visible.

  2. Switching between concave and convex modes to better adjust to conditions i.e.

    When you want more privacy or want less reflections and less outside light you switch to concave mode.

    When you want to be able to catch more light or read while lying in bed and at obtuse angles, you switch to convex mode. Convex mode would also be useful when adding freehand notes.

  3. Rigid Screen Versus Flexible Screen mode of the eReader where users can choose what works better for them. 

How could use of flexible eInk screens in other areas help eReaders?

Making eInk screens flexible adds the possibilityof using them in lots of other areas i.e.

  1. In defence (the Arizona State project with the US Army is focused on flexible wearable displays for soldiers).
  2. On clothing and in watches. 
  3. In retail displays. 
  4. For cellphones.

This leads to innovations that can be brought back to eReaders. For example, solar powered eInk (which Neolux is already working on).

Even more importantly it leads to advances in eInk technology and price drops that are crucial for eReaders to become more popular.

PVI buys eInk, Showtime advertises to Kindlers

Two interesting pieces of news this morning -

  1. EInk Corporation has agreed to be bought by Prime View International of Taiwan for $215 million. Xconomy Boston has details including the fact that, given it had taken over $150 million of investments, its not much of a payoff. EInk will hold a press conference at the SID trade show in a few days. More details on the companies in the Press Release about the acquisition.

    “Combining E Ink and PVI creates a single public company that is dedicated to electronic paper,” said Russell J. Wilcox, co-founder, President and CEO of E Ink Corp.

  2. Advertising Age has the scoop on Showtime offering Kindle users a free download of the pilot script of their new series “Nurse Jackie”.

    Working with its media shop, Omnicom Group’s OMD, Showtime will use banner ads throughout Amazon.com and on the Kindle storefront to promote the free download, which will be available until Aug. 31.

My first thoughts on hearing Kindle and advertising in one sentence were not happy ones. This however, seems pretty reasonable – advertise your show by offering the script as a free download. It seems that Showtime keeps trying new, innovative ways of reaching customers and increasing the audience for its shows -

The idea of using Kindle, a text-based electronic reader, to promote a TV show may seem odd, but it falls directly in line with Showtime’s typical modus operandi when it comes to hyping a new series, said Stuart Zakim, VP-corporate public relations at Showtime.

As far as the EInk acquisition -

Now that PVI has bought EInk the whole confusion around who does what is gone. Apparently EInk had the know-how behind the Kindle and Sony Reader’s eInk screens, and PVI used EInk technology to manufacture the actual screens for Kindle and Sony Reader. The acquisition simplifies things.

Wonder if the advent of Plastic Logic and Pixel Qi made EInk think that its prospects were not as bright and cashing out for a small profit now was the smart thing to do. It’ll be interesting to see what PVI does to stay relevant in the epaper space.

Kindle 3 thoughts – Amazon needs to move beyond eInk

After reading, the interview with Russ Wilcox (CEO, eInk) it’s worth pondering the feature release schedule he outlines for eInk screens -

  1. 2009 – All about different sizes. 
  2. 2010 – All about flexible displays. 
  3. 2011 – All about color.

Hidden in there is the fact that 2009 (or early 2010 at the latest) will also see touch eInk screens become much more prominent (in a form that does not mess up screen visibility like in the Sony PRS700). However, a new feature a year just isn’t impressive enough. That would mean we don’t see a color Kindle until 2011 – 2 years too long in my opinion.

There are a lot of competing technologies for ePaper screens, with a few being -

  1. Army funded Arizona State University project for flexible wearable displays. 
  2. Fujitsu’s screen technology used in Flepia eReaders. 
  3. PlasticLogic’s screen technology. 
  4. Microsoft Research’s eReader Technology.

Depending solely on eInk makes Amazon susceptible to one of the few possible attacks against Kindle i.e. A much improved technology. A device that makes a significant jump over the Kindle technologically is one of the few products that is an actual threat to Kindle 2 and Kindle 3.  

Kindle 2 has little competition because WhisperNet, WhisperSync, the eInk screen, the upcoming Kindle Mobile, and the range of products in the Kindle Store combine to create the best eReading experience currently available. However, they have not raised the bar much screen technology wise – Kindle 2 is actually more like Kindle 1.5, and a Kindle 3 release that is merely Kindle 1.9 or Kindle 2.0 would not be enough.

Kindle 3 needs to have a screen and other technology that clearly wows people. Think iPhone multi-touch, Microsoft Surface etc. It needs some really strong, cool technology because it’ll probably be competing with a 9″ iTouch Book Reader from Apple that’s probably significantly improved over even the current multi-touch coolness.

If Amazon doesn’t start using/trialling additional screen technologies it risks linking its fate with that of eInk, which would be a dangerous and completely unnecessary strategy.

Kindle 2 – eInk’s Russ Wilcox on eInk’s future + K2 Links

The Kindle 2 is predictably getting a huge amount of coverage. In addition to reviews there are a lot of interesting updates and threads of discussion  -

Russ Wilcox on Kindle 2’s eInk screen technology.

  1. The best of the bunch is this fascinating interview with eInk’s CEO and co-founder Russ Wilcox, with some company history -

    E Ink was launched in 1997, and has had to raise more than $150 million—mostly from big industry players like Intel, Motorola, Philips, Hearst Interactive Media, and Japan’s TOPPAN Printing—to transform e-paper from a drawing-board concept into a manufacturable product.

    It’s quite amazing to me that eInk took 12 years and $150 million to create the current eInk screens – that’s a lot of committment and hard work.

  2. Russ Wilcox is on the future of eInk technology -

    … we are starting to introduce displays that are in many different sizes. And you will see flexible displays going to market, at small volumes this year, but 2010 will be a big year for flexible displays. And then at the end of 2010, you will start to see improvements in the ink. We will have a whiter white and a blacker black, and we will start to experiment with color. You will probably see 2011 be the year of color.

    That’s a really interesting update schedule, with 2009 – multiple sizes; 2010 – flexible screens; 2011 – color. I wonder whether Microsoft Research with their eReader prototype and new Microsoft Surface demo screen will have something to show by then.

  3. On the potential impact of eInk on publishing and newspapers -

    Worldwide, the book industry is an $80 billion industry. If, by distributing electronically, they could save 30 percent on their costs, that would add $25 billion a year to their profitability. The newspaper industry is twice as large, and could probably save 50 percent. What we’ve got here is a technology that could be saving the world $80 billion a year.

Perhaps publishers can take some time off from trying to sabotage the Kindle 2’s Read To Me feature and hiking eBook prices to think about that.

Kindle 2 Links

  1. Tim O’Reilly thinks that if Amazon doesn’t embrace open standards, the Kindle’s lead will end. It is a bold claim and I really don’t agree. Companies and proponents of open standards for ebooks are not really doing it out of the goodness of their hearts and their arguments should be interpreted accordingly. Amazon is going to push the kindle .azw format and the kindle store via every channel it can find – Kindle 2, Kindle 1, Kindle Mobile, etc. Amazon really don’t have a reason to open up the Kindle 2 – if anything, they risk having some company do to them what Microsoft did to IBM.  
  2. The Authors’ Guild continues to make a hue and cry about Read To Me. The more interesting story with Read To Me is actually the huge potential for helping blind and low vision people.
  3. The discovery of the SIM skeleton socket in the Kindle 2 Take-Apart has set off articles about Kindle 2’s availability in Europe. And rightly so.  
  4. Meanwhile, there’s also a petition to have Kindle 2 brought to Canada
  5. And for UK readers interested in the Kindle 2 – The Daily Mail is talking about launching a Kindle Edition in the US and the UK. Considering Kindle 2 isn’t even available in the UK they’re either jumping the gun or know something we don’t – probably both. Here’s the actual comment –  

    James Bromley, M.D. of the Mail’s website Mail Online, said: “We’re in talks with Amazon to launch in the US in the near future and we’re also talking about the UK version. The advantages are quite simply the quality and size of the screen.”

PVI, EInk Technology RoadMap + Impact on Kindle

Amazon uses PVI/eInk technology for the Kindle’s screen and these companies therefore determine -

  1. Kindle Supply – PVI has a capacity for producing approximately 100,000 screens a month (rough estimates) and supplies these eInk screens to Amazon, Sony, Bookeen, iRex and other eReader manufacturers. (I’ll go into more details in a separate post). This limited supply is perhaps the main reason for Kindle being out of stock.
  2. Kindle Screen Quality and Functionality – Amazon uses PVI’s EPDs and is obviously limited by the level of technology PVI can produce. Color, Video, Touch capability all depend on the screen.
  3. Kindle Price – If the rumored $200 screen price is correct then PVI is the most expensive component of the Kindle and directly responsible for the relatively high $359 price. Edit: Alternate rumors of a $70 price – so now we have a range of $70-$200 for the screen.

This post covers existing and forthcoming eInk and PVI technological advances that will have an impact on the Kindle -

  1. eInk Color – While there are rumors of a 3 year waiting period, eInk’s own VP has said that color screens will be available in 2009. I’d take that claim lightly – here’s a picture from a press release from Oct 2005 that talked about “an electronic paper color prototype that achieves 12-bit color in a 400×300 pixel format with resolution of 83 pixels per inch, using a custom color filter from strategic partner Toppan “. Color eInk screens have been touted since 2001, and a hard 2009 release date is no certainity. Here’s the 2005 image –
    eInk Color - in 2009?
    eInk Color – in 2009?

    And next, a video from May, 2008 showing an actual eInk color screen –

  2. eInk Touch Screen – This is already available on the new Sony Reader. A Nov 13th press release from PVI talking about touch screen eInk displays -

    Prime View International (PVI) will soon start shipping electrophoretic displays (EPDs) featuring force sensing touch technology developed by US-based F-Origin … the company expects to start shipments in the second quarter of 2009.

    Will the Kindle 2.0 have one? Don’t know – however, it’s nice to know that it’ll be available if and when Amazon chooses to work it in. This video shows the Touch Screen (and also the 16 level greyscale screen and a little bit of animation) –

  3. eInk Animation and Video – eInk has a description of the BroadSheet Prototype Kit they have available for testing and development. It is 16-level grayscale image capable, and has fast update speeds with pen input, text input, basic animation and pop-up windowing. I wasn’t able to figure out when this would be commercially available. I also found a video that purports to show eInk animation (the video is rather short) –
  4. eInk Screen Supplies – An eInk executive has been quoted as saying that eInk have gone from manufacturing tens of thousands of units to millions. Not sure what percentage of these ‘millions’ get to Amazon. Increase in scale is great on multiple counts – more screens means an end in Kindle delays (hopefully it’s the screens that are the hold-up). Also, as more screens are made, economies of scale kick in and the screens become cheaper.
  5. eInk Pricing – an eInk competitor like Nemoptic could come out with a viable competitor at a lower price, or economies of scale could kick in driving prices down. One of these is bound to happen in 2009.

Overall, there are are some promising advances in eInk that will show up in Kindle 3.0 (touch screen may show up in Kindle 2.0 itself – though it’s not a given). I’d say there’s a chance that we start seeing color Kindles by end 2009 to mid 2010.

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