E Ink on every smart surface!

August 19, 2008

As per iSuppli, flexible displays are playing an increasingly important role in the global high-tech industry, serving as the crucial enabling technology for a new generation of portable devices that are designed to combine mobility with compelling user interfaces. iSuppli also forecasts that the total flexible display market will reach $2.8 billion by 2013, from about $80 million in 2007.

Flexible displays were on center stage at the recently held Society for Information Display (SID) 2008 International Symposium, Seminar and Exhibition, in May at Los Angeles. One of the participants, E Ink, showcased a variety of flexible electrophoretic bi-stable displays, from simple direct drive screens for wristwatches, to beautifully-designed mobile-phone cover displays, to active matrix high resolution displays for e-book/mobile phones, such as those used in Polymer Vision’s Readius.

E Ink, an Electrophoretic Display (EPD) company headquartered in Boston, has been most successful in the market so far. E Ink makes rolls of EPD film that are then shipped to its partners.

I caught up with Sriram Peruvemba, Vice President of Marketing, E Ink Corp., during his recent trip to India, in an attempt to find out more about the company, its direction in the EPD domain, and obviously, a possible interest in the Indian semiconductor and manufacturing segments.

Founded in 1997 based on research started at the MIT Media Lab, E Ink is the leading supplier of electronic paper display (EPD) technologies. Products made with E Ink’s revolutionary electronic ink possess a paper-like high contrast appearance, ultra-low power consumption and a thin, light form.

E Ink’s technology is ideal for many consumer and industrial applications spanning handheld devices like eBooks, eNewspapers, Web browsers, watches, and public information and promotional signs. Future technology developments will enable many new applications through ultra-thin, lightweight, rugged, flexible, full color displays.

E Ink has commercialized many different forms of “Electronic Paper” solutions over the past decade. Most recently, Sony, Lexar, Motorola and others have all won prestigious awards for their use of E Ink’s technology in their devices. Customers value E Ink’s technology for its brightness, high contrast, and low power — attributes that are similar to paper.

E Ink is currently mass manufacturing high-resolution displays for several e-books, including the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, as well as for signage, watches and other portable devices.

“There are three words that describe E Ink : Innovative, Collaborative, Scalable. We constantly reinvent our product to make it better, we have a partnership approach to build an eco-system around our products and our products are mass produced,” he said.

E Ink’s products do use semiconductors in its construction, but its products are categorized as flat panel display (FPD), rather than a more broad based semicon segment.

According to Peruvemba, the TAM (Total Available Market) for flat panels is about $90billion, dominated by LCDs. While these displays are changeable, they are not well suited for reading. Most people using LCD monitors and laptops, often print documents for easy reading since these backlit screens strain the eyes.

The TAM for the publishing industry (books, magazines, newspapers) is estimated to be $400 billion. These pulp based paper medium are easy to read, but the content does not change. Besides, this medium is becoming a luxury as it requires us to cut trees, thereby increasing our carbon footprint.

He said that E Ink’s EPDs are aimed at occupying the space in between these two markets, which neither satisfy completely. “Our displays, like the traditional electronic displays, will allow content to be changed on the fly and they are as easy to read as ordinary paper. This revolutionary technology took 10 years to develop. Now, it is being adapted in several applications aimed at replacing pulp based paper documents as in books, newspapers and other documents,” he noted.

So how does E Ink see the flexible and printed electronics display market evolving? Peruvemba said: “We see a trend toward flexible displays, higher pixel resolution, non-rectangular shapes, lower power consuming displays, sunlight readability, mercury-less devices and displays designed for eco-friendly applications.”

Flexible displays will replace the fragile, glass based ones not just because they look and feel like paper, but they are significantly more rugged, thinner and lighter.

“We are talking about being able to drop the displays without breaking them, sustain bumps and vibration, displays that will continue to work if you accidentally stepped on them.”

With E Ink’s Vizplex imaging film based displays, you can now have eNewspapers that look like paper, feel like paper, weigh as much as paper, consume very little power, can be dropped to the floor like paper, be read from any angle like paper but offer changeable content, allow a more ecologically responsible option with a level of customization and variety that is impossible with ordinary paper or book.

And what’s the future like for electronic paper display technologies? According to Peruvemba, the future is extremely promising. Print publication will go electronic, and this is not a IF but a WHEN.

For one, the level of convenience with electronic paper will cause more people to read more varieties of publications. Today, a traveler could carry an iLiad eBook from iRex that could contain books, magazines and newspapers vs carrying the paper version of just one of the above given the space and weight constraints with ordinary paper.

In fact, a traveler carrying say the Sony Reader eBook in their briefcase could literally take their entire home library with them. Many eBooks offered by Sony, iRex, Amazon, Jinke, Bookeen, Star eBook, Neolux, Netronix, Astak Mentor, etc., allow you to save over 100 books within the device.

He said: “We will see higher resolution displays in consumer devices, displays that have pixel resolution of 300-400 dpi coupled with lower power consumption, ruggedness and sunlight readability aimed at replacing paper. Mercury filled backlights will be replaced making displays more eco-friendly.

“Finally, you can plant a tree and wait 20 years for it to grow, and generate reasonable amount of oxygen or you can read electronic books and newspapers on your Electronic Paper Display and save 20 trees in the next 20 minutes.” Electronic Paper Displays will continue to evolve and replace pulp-based paper.

E Ink’s electronic paper is also used in lower information content displays in applications like wrist watches, cell phone cover, memory sticks, battery indicators, signage applications etc. These displays are flexible, can be cut to any size, allow the designer to “think outside the rectangle”.

Peruvemba said his company’s vision is: E Ink on Every Smart Surface!

“Our displays, we believe, will be used on non-flat surfaces, in three dimensional form, replacing paper, on buildings, even on clothes and vehicles,” he added.

E Ink has been providing Electrophoretic Displays (EPD). What all applications can these be used for?

Peruvemba noted: “Applications for our high information content matrix displays include: eBooks (there are 10 manufacturers today with about 15 different models), eNewspapers, eTextbooks (imagine replacing that heavy backpack that students carry, with a single eTextbook that can carry their entire library and allow for animation to explain say “photosynthesis” phonemenon better than a static image on ordinary paper text book), Web browsers, GPS devices, data collectors, marine navigation, etc.

“Applications for our lower information content displays include battery indicators, USB memory sticks, wrist watches, smart cards, indoor and outdoor signs and even magazine covers (see Esquire’s plans for its October issue marking its 75th anniversary)”

Highlights or key features of electrophoretic displays include:

Paper Like: E Ink Vizplex displays are actually made of bits of paper and ink. We use the same material used in oridinary paper and ordinary ink to generate the white and black colors.

Low Power: With our displays you can leave your power cord at home.

Flexible: Our display bend so your product won’t break.

Sunlight Readable: E Ink displays require no shade. Imagine using your laptop outdoors in bright sunlight. With E Ink, you can!

Thin, Light: Paper white and feather lite. Requires no harmful mercury filled backlight, as this is a reflective display technology.

Wide viewing: Read fast from any angle.

Finally, and obviously, what would be E Ink’s interest in India? Peruvemba cited the huge market as an instant observation. Also, newspapers are on a decline in North America. However, newspaper circulation is on the increase in India. This is probably true for textbooks, fiction and non-fiction publications, etc.

He said: “India represents a large and growing market for our products. We currently have customers that are evaluating our display technologies for various applications.”

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