Technological revolutions that didn’t quite happen are interesting both for where they went wrong and for what they might still lead to. E-ink comes to mind: a solution for making a single electrophoretic page a window onto unlimited quantities of text with no constraints other than battery life and Internet access. All printable human knowledge presented in devices compact and convenient enough to ring down the curtain of obsolescence on the conventionally produced books they aimed to replace: wasn’t this vision on its way to out-revolutionizing the advancements of Gutenberg, Mergenthaler, and all their paperbound descendants?
Up to a point, it was. The success of e-ink based reading devices from Amazon, Sony, and others is a matter of record. But, the momentum has slowed. Other display technologies compete with e-ink for the presentation of text and graphics. Apps, unavailable while e-ink was being developed, have since emerged as channels for publishing in their own right. Traditional ink-on-paper publishing holds its own against digital replacement as readers (e-reading device owners included) continue to insist on surrounding themselves with multiple copies of old-fashioned books and magazines.
But, even if e-ink isn’t sweeping everything before it on this front, the progress it is making on others shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s still one of the most agile, energy-efficient, and viewer-friendly display methods that imaging science has come up with, and potential applications for it spring up almost everywhere we are used to looking for information in print or decoration in graphics. Consider these innovations:
• E Ink Prism brings the technology to wall structures and other architectural elements, enabling colors and patterns of surroundings to be changed at will. (Imagine all the squabbles about home décor something like this could head off.)
• Speaking of walls, the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City contains the largest one made of e-ink: a composite of 231 tiled 7.4" displays arranged in a grid of 33 displays across by seven displays high. Measuring almost six meters wide, the installation has a resolution of 26,400 x 3,360 pixels. It briefs U.N. personnel with scheduling, news and other information as needed.
• This post is being typed on a laptop connected to an LCD-based secondary screen that’s large and bright but also cumbersome and electricity-hungry. I could replace it with a new high-resolution e-ink monitor that cuts most of the weight while giving me a crisp, scrollable e-ink display. Because it’s e-ink, it draws no additional power until I want to change the contents being viewed.
• Smart phone screens have mostly been off limits to e-ink. That could change if phone makers like what they see in PaperFold, a concept that lets users fold up to three e-ink display panels into configurations for presenting phone calls and related information in panoramas that single-screen smart phones can’t match.
• How much conventional store signage could be replaced by e-ink displays that change as soon as prices do without having to reprint or reinstall anything? Potentially, a lot. A supermarket chain in the U.K. is testing the idea with e-ink shelf markers that can be programmed for automatic update from a central database. A Swedish company called MotionDisplay recently landed orders in Bentonville, AK, where Walmart is headquartered, to develop in-store display solutions based on e-ink. Retail is an application area to watch.
• The Apple Watch is hogging the limelight in the wearable computing category—and it isn’t even available for purchase yet. Beating it to market in 2013 was the Pebble Smartwatch, which raised more than $10 million on Kickstarter to fund its launch. The first Pebble Smartwatch had an LCD screen, but the newest model, Pebble Time, is to have one made of color e-paper. It, too, is a Kickstarter hit, having raised its first $500,000 there in just 17 minutes.
• Those looking for a one-of-a-kind e-ink application to get behind might want to consider the Volvorii Timeless Smart High Heel Shoe. It has inlays of flexible e-paper that change patterns in response to signals the wearer transmits from a smartphone app to a Bluetooth receiver embedded in the sole. The president of E-Ink Corp., the originator of EDP (electronic paper display) technology, has pre-ordered the shoe, according to a post by the developer at crowd-funding site Indiegogo.
This Harvard Business School profile of E-Ink Corp. in its early years notes that in the view of one of the company’s founders, “the ultimate goal of e-ink was to ‘kill paper.’ That is, electronic ink would replace all forms of paper-based communication.” This may have been nothing but start-up swagger; in any case, the displacement hasn’t come to pass, and it almost certainly never will. But, e-ink has an undeniable place at the table in graphic communications, and it would be a mistake for conventional producers that it poses no competitive threat. It still is too soon to tell where or when this special technology will discover what it does better than any other print-based medium.