Looking into flexible ereader technology

The eReader feature that gets the most buzz after color is flexibility. Flexible eReaders are slated to provide two huge benefits –

  1. Flexibility allows for new forms and designs and even new functionality. We get foldable and rollable displays and displays that can be worn on the arm or on clothes. With foldable displays like Qualcomm’s 3 screen display you can actually use the configuration to change functionality i.e. when laid out it’s a DVD player and when folded an eBook reader. 
  2. Flexibility allows eReader screens to bend rather than break. This could mean actual unbreakable displays or simply hard to break displays.

There are also other benefits – very good portability, you can get a larger screen size than device size, you can choose whatever form factor you prefer, and so on.

Let’s start by looking at how flexible eReader screens can be constructed. Note that this is very new to me so it’s just an exploration – not a treatise.

How eReaders can be made Flexible

We’ll quote a report on flexible displays from Paul Drzaic (President, SID). There are a few main components that have to be made flexible –

  1. The electronics used for the eInk. The eInk used in Kindle, Nook etc. is inherently flexible and also very thin making it ideal for flexible displays.  
  2. The backplane used for the screen. This is the backing on which the electronic Ink is set. Most electronics use a silicon backplane which prevents flexibility. By using flexible backplanes such as plastic and metal foil we can make this layer flexible.
  3. Electronic Components of the eReader. You have to use materials that will be flexible and can handle the pressure and bending – organic transistors and silver nanowires and carbon nanotubes and metal oxides.
  4. The body of the eReader.   
  5. You also need to have special processes to create these flexible displays.

If you combine all these you get flexible, unbreakable eReaders.

Flexible eReaderTechnology – The Competitors

There are actually a lot of companies building flexible eReaders and flexible ePaper –  

  1. Bridgestone QR-LPD – Bridgestone in October 2009 used flexible color epaper and flexible circuit boards to create a 10.7″ flexible eReader prototype that bends to an extent.
  2. Skiff Reader – Uses a flexible metal backplane with eInk and a Magnesium Alloy casing. Technology is from LG Display.  
  3. Wistron Flexible eReader (they bought Polymer Vision). This uses an organic transistor backplane with eInk to create a rollable display. Basically, a 5″ display that you can roll and carry in your pocket.  
  4. eInk had promised flexible, unbreakable displays by end 2009 or early 2010. They have a page for their flexible eInk – Note the complete lack of updates since 2007. Like most of their promises this one hasn’t materialized. Note: It’s the same eInk screen that the Kindle and Nook and Sony have – it’s just a flexible variant.  
  5. Plastic Logic’s Que Reader. A flexible, bendable screen that does not break if dropped. It uses an organic transistor backplane. Plastic Logic actually restricted the flexibility of their device – they claim that people wanted something more firm to hold on to. Starts at $649. Check the BBC site for a video of the bendable eReader Que.
  6. AIST ePaper. It’s a microcontact printed organic LCD screen available in 6″ and A4 sizes (the A4 has 1600 by 1200 pixels resolution).
  7. Kent Displays – They have cholesteric LCD displays encapsulated in electronic skins.
  8. Seiko Epson – They are making flexible ePaper using flex backplanes.
  9. AU Optronics unveiled the prototype of a 6″ folding eReader with touch capability in October 2009. The 6″ flexible display is unbreakable, has a contrast ratio of 9:1, and is expected to reach the market in 2010.
  10. Phicot, a spin-off of HP, is producing flexible wrist displays that use eInk and flexible solar cells. These are currently being used by US troops.

Also interesting is this article about Europe’s role in Flexible Displays. It seems that both Polymer Vision’s Readius and Plastic Logic’s Que have had contributions from the FlexiDis project – a joint project between Philips, Nokia, Thales, and more.

Finally, Taiwan’s ITRI showed off a number of flexible display prototypes in Nov 2009 including a flexible 4.1″ OLED display and a flexible Cholesteric LCD screen that can be rolled up.

Flexible eReaders – When will they arrive?

We have a very interesting set of release dates and estimates –

  1. The solar cell powered flexible wrist displays from HP spin-off Phicot are supposedly already used by the army. No idea if/when they reach the general market.
  2. Plastic Logic were planning April 2010 and got scared off by the iPad. They are now saying summer 2010.
  3. Skiff is saying summer 2010 too.
  4. eInk is saying end 2010 – although they won’t specify which of Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader will have these flexible displays. 
  5. Bridgestone has said it has no plans for commercializing its technology.
  6. Polymer Vision went bankrupt and Wistron bought its technology. No release dates have been announced.
  7. AU Optronics have said 2010.
  8. No idea of when AIST, Kent Displays, and Seiko Epson plan on releasing their technology.

2010 definitely seems to be the year we see flexible eReaders arrive and Plastic Logic, Skiff, and eInk seem to be the frontrunners for creating (in the case of eInk helping create) a hit flexible eReader.

Are Flexible eReaders a big deal? Is flexibility a killer feature?

Here are a few ways flexibility could be turned into a killer feature –

  1. Unbreakable screens. This is an obvious killer advantage.
  2. New types of devices. If you look at the three screen folding Qualcomm eReader (just a patent at this point) it’s easy to see how flexibility can be used to create a killer feature-set and an entirely new type of device.
  3. Huge jumps in Portability and Screen Size to Device Size ratio. You could get an iPad that folds down to the size of an iPhone. A Kindle DX that fits into your pocket.
  4. Marketing Angle – Put it into the hands of a good marketer and flexibility can be translated into coolness and much more of an edge than it actually is.

There are definitely other ways to leverage flexibility to gain an advantage – We’re just getting started and flexible eReaders will probably surprise us with what they evolve into.

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.