FUTURESPEAK

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LORNE A. WHITEHEAD

Images on electronic screens have always been harder to read than those printed on paper. The problem is that electronic displays have limitations. An online newspaper can be difficult to read in the backyard at high noon. But you can read a hard-copy newspaper or book just about wherever you want, even outdoors under glaring sunlight. Whether reading a liquid crystal display of a digital watch or a personal digital assistant, many people find that they need to be in a place that's not too bright and not too dark to decipher electronic content.

The work of Lorne A. Whitehead, professor of applied physics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, could change this. He has recently developed a form of electronic paper that is whiter looking than any previous reflective electronic display. It consists of a surface that has the appearance of an image on paper, runs on less power and can be viewed under a wider variety of light conditions.

“Ultimately,� he says, “my dream is that our lives will be filled with electronic documents that are as nice to read as paper, but have all the convenience of electronic documents.� He is optimistic that electronic paper will eventually become ubiquitous. His research has been funded by 3M and the Canadian federal government's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. American Demographics' Sandra Yin recently checked in with him to learn about the market potential for this new technology.

AD: What applications do you envision?

LW: The first applications would be those that are poorly satisfied by existing reflective displays. A good example of that is a hand-held personal digital assistant (PDA). Most people are dissatisfied with the displays under certain circumstances. Most of us have to work to get a good vantage point to view the display. That's the first application where there is an unsatisfied need. Taking it one step further, there's a natural evolution to laptop computers. If you're sitting near a window or outside where it's really bright, it's very difficult to read a laptop screen. Most of them are light emitting displays that don't emit enough light to compete with the background light in a bright environment. And then, electronic signs, roadside signs, outdoor signs and billboards with moving or changing images.

One application we're very excited about has the potential to enhance safety. Have you had the experience of driving down a country road and you see a roadside warning sign, made of retro reflector? They reflect the light from your headlight. There are a lot of accidents caused by people who become distracted or sleepy. We're interested in creating flashing retro reflective signs. It requires very low power. In a remote rural setting, it would require very little energy to switch on with a battery that lasts many years.

AD: How might electronic paper change how we work?

LW: Instead of having one computer screen at your desk that you can't move around, your office might contain 10 or 12 lightweight pads that look like paper, but are actually electronic paper. Each of them would be exactly the equivalent of your current computer screen, just like notepad computers. They would be wirelessly connected. One might be today's newspaper. Another could be a document you're working on. Instead of working just on your computer with documents buried layers deep on your desktop, you would have many screens that you could access. Ultimately, electronic paper will be sufficiently inexpensive and efficient that it will be the norm in the office.

AD: What's the market for electronic paper?

LW: Anywhere we read. Anywhere we look at images. Watching movies, reading the newspaper. You can watch a DVD on your laptop, but you can't do it at the beach. You can't see it. And your battery won't last long enough. You don't feel constrained about where you can read a book. Today people are very constrained about where they can read a screen. We're talking about freedom and liberating the electronic display.

AD: How big is the market for electronic paper?

LW: The market for PDAs is large, because millions of people have them. It could easily be in the multibillions.

AD: When will electronic paper applications turn up first?

LW: We could see them first show up in roadside warning signs. In three years, they could show up in PDAs. Five years out, they could turn up in computers and television, which would probably have merged by that point.

AD: What questions do researchers have to resolve before we see electronic paper in those products?

LW: There are no known problems yet. But of course, whenever you start scaling up, and doing longevity and lifetime testing, there's a chance that challenges that need to be overcome will present themselves. But we don't know what they are yet. We're pretty optimistic.

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