ePaper is coming

In this installment of Machine Builder Mojo, Senior Tech Editor Dan Hebert, PE, says that although eBook devices are fairly new, it’s easy to envision a future in which we use them as readily as e-mail.

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By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

Dan HebertYou’re reading this via one of two mediums, either the printed magazine or a computer screen. Neither medium is wholly satisfactory. Magazines take a long time to reach your hands, are expensive to print and distribute, and kill trees. Reading from a computer screen induces headaches, and even the smallest PC is not as portable as a magazine. Computers also consume power, which makes them bad for the environment, and they’re heavy and hot.

The consumer electronic and publishing industries have been searching for decades for a medium that can deliver content quickly and cheaply in a format acceptable to readers. The search might be over.

Using electronic paper—let’s call it ePaper (someone probably has coined the phrase already)—as a display in an eBook overcomes two problems with LCD and CRT displays.

First, ePaper relies on ambient light just like ink on paper. This makes an ePaper display sharp and easy to read, even in direct sunlight. If there is enough ambient light to read, it’s bright enough to illuminate and power ePaper.

Because ePaper is powered by ambient light, no additional power is needed to display a page of text. Power is consumed only when the screen is updated. This obviously cuts power requirements, and has the potential to reduce battery size, weight, and heat dissipation. The main drawback of ePaper is that it’s only black and white.

A few companies already sell eBooks that use ePaper. Sony’s Reader has a 6-in. diagonal screen, weighs a little less than nine oz., and has a ½-in. depth. Sony claims battery life of 7,500 page turns for the $349 device.

Some field research was needed to interpret what a battery life of 7,500 page turns means to us readers, so your humble correspondent set off to a nearby consumer electronics store. The Sony Reader display was extremely impressive, and very clear and easy to read. I had to remind myself I was reading a display and not a paperback. This never happened to me with any other display technology. Drawings and other images were rendered in impressive detail that was very pleasing to my eyes.

Each page contains about 200 words in the standard display format. Users easily can switch to larger type, but this reduces the words per page, requires more page turns, and decreases battery life. Compared to the 200 words per page of the reader, this magazine contains about 800 words per page. I viewed the George Orwell novel 1984 on the reader and noted it took 552 pages from start to finish. By contrast, the standard-sized, paperback version of 1984 runs 336 pages.

Finally, nine ounces might not seem a lot, but it is much more than a paperback or a magazine weighs. Of course, the reader can hold much more content: about 80 average-size books.

The iLiad from iRex Technologies is a higher-priced, competitive product with more features. Both the Sony and the iLiad use electronic-paper technology from E∙Ink.

Although these eBook devices are fairly new, it’s easy to envision a future in which we use them as readily as e-mail. Imagine your eBook with a wireless broadband connection. It automatically downloads your preferred magazines and notifies you when each is ready to read. Each magazine arrives days or weeks sooner than what you were used to. You can bookmark any articles of particular interest and transfer them to your PC for long-term storage or to get a hard-copy printout.

What if you’re reading a book review in a magazine and decide you want the book? Well, if your eBook is equipped with an electronic stylus, it would allow you to place an order and get the book via a wireless download.

Further, if your eBook is equipped with e-mail, it would allow you to receive and read messaages, so you immediately could send articles or book passages of interest to friends and business associates.

The relatively high cost of $349 for the Sony Reader precludes widespread adoption at this time, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see prices drop as has occurred with numerous other consumer electronic devices.

It seems to me that a price of $150 or lower and the addition of that wireless link might be enough of an incentive to some higher-priced magazines to include an eBook as part of an annual subscription. Subscribers would certainly respond, and magazines would see an opportunity to gain a customer for life.

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