TOOLS & TOYS: THINK INK

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After years of R&D, futurist essays and clunky proto-papyrus surrogates à la Etch-A-Sketch, behold electronic ink. It looks like printer's ink, but chemistry, physics and electronics have made a whole new supersmart love child -- microcapsules of pigment and dye electrically charged to change color. Apply electronic ink to any surface (standard paper, fabric, cell phones, automobiles) and the particles form recyclable images. Someday, animated newspapers may typeset themselves and billboards will morph on demand.

So hopes E Ink Corp., the Cambridge, Mass., company fronting proprietary MIT Media Lab display technology under the Immedia name. E Ink seeks to eventually produce a full-fledged electronic book that readers can leaf through at the beach, and has signed a joint agreement to that end with Lucent Technologies to develop electronic paper.

In the meantime, E Ink's Immedia signs (6x4 feet, half a millimeter thick), already being tested at several J.C. Penney stores in Chicago, have higher contrast than newsprint and more ambient light reflection than LCDs. Activated locally or via cross-country pager, a computer brain using less energy than a lightbulb switches 44 messages 200 times daily. These are what Pong was to videogames, but Dreamcast isn't that far off. Two-tone displays will yield to full color. Signs now can switch twice per second, but 10 frames-per-second animation is possible. Video-quality rates are in R&D. "If ad people don't immediately grasp what this technology portends, they probably ought to be thinking about another line of work," says Roger Silverberg of Roger H. Silverberg Advertising in New York. "Electronic ink is darned near to being a Holy Grail for advertisers."

Future ink thinkers envision paper-thin video walls, wearable TV spots and updatable catalogs, menus and outdoor color advertising. But that will be then, and this is now. "Our immediate plans are to use electronic ink for trade show displays," says Silverberg. "Yes, it'll be a gimmick -- but it's a good

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