It all began in the second half of the 20th century when digital technology began to gradually replace mechanical and analogue electronic technology as a means of storing, transferring, and utilizing information. The digital revolution ushered in a proliferation of digital computers and digital data storage.
E Ink Corporation: the company
Established in 1997 in Billerica, Massachusetts, E Ink Corporation provides low power e-ink modules to world renowned brands and manufacturers. The US company is considered the originator, pioneer, and commercial leader of electronic paper (e-ink) technology.
E-readers have become a popular device for reading books, magazines, and other written forms of online content for several reasons. You can carry an entire library on your device, read on the go, and adjust the font size as per your convenience giving a healthier screen time. E-readers have also become increasingly popular over the years thanks to advancing and affordable technology in this area. Digital technology is here to stay and so are the e-readers.
E-ink has come a long way, from the earliest e-readers of the aughts to a huge array of devices in every major category. But the question asked is, can it actually replace mainstream displays? “We were going to take over the world. We were going to do everything, all by ourselves, and it was going to be the biggest company in history. Then the dot-com crash happened and money was a little bit harder,” says Timothy O’Malley, AVP, US Regional Business Unit at E Ink Corporation. E Ink’s technology first made its way into Sony Librie, Sony’s e-reader that hit the markets in 2004, but it was the Amazon Kindle series, launched in 2007, that put them on the map. “When the product was launched in the US, Sony and Amazon Kindle, that sort of had the magic. And the next five years there was 300% growth year over year over year,” adds O’Malley.
Electronic paper technology has made some big strides in recent years to the point where it is no longer restricted to e-readers. E-ink is popular in signage used for public displays which needs to consistently update information but in a power efficient way that can be viewed from multiple angles. The technology has been charging ahead with improvements since the mid aughts. “Take Kindle, for example, which has changed so much over the years. The update time is three to four times faster, contrast ratio is three to four times higher, and the cost is probably about five to seven times lower,” explains O’Malley. E-ink also has specific benefits over most phone screens that use traditional LCD and OLED technology in terms of its power efficiency and reflective displays.
Introducing colour display
E Ink and other companies that use its electronic paper to make consumer devices, including China’s DASUNG and Onyx, and Norway’s reMarkable, have made huge strides in overcoming challenges related to screen contrast, refresh rates, and colour displays. With these, the scope of e-ink was stretched beyond e-readers as today we have e-ink colour tablets, monitors, notepads, smartwatches, and more Kindles. Even videos can be watched on some e-ink displays, albeit with a lesser picture quality as compared to one’s personal phone.
One of the most significant developments in e-ink technology is the introduction of colour displays. While e-ink screens have been around for over two decades, they were primarily limited to black and white displays. Recent advancements have made it possible to produce e-ink screens capable of displaying a full range of colours, which will open up new possibilities for diverse applications.
New use cases of e-ink technology on the horizon
E-ink has also found its way into various other concepts like clothing, furniture, and even robotics. Looking at the future, experts believe that this could just be the tip of the iceberg in electronic paper applications when it comes to form, factors, and surfaces. Major companies have already begun using e-ink technology, showcasing innovative and sustainable ways to future business. German car maker BMW presented its new vision vehicle – an actual colour-changing concept car – the BMW i Vision Dee at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2023 in Las Vegas, using this technology. SHARP Corporation introduced new colour models of their electronic paper display e-posters that were unveiled during the SHARP Tech-Day in Tokyo. The new e-poster offered expanded colour gamut, enabling greater colour saturation and contrast.
“One of my favourite is Badger, a programmable badge with e-ink display,” says E Ink’s O’Malley. “The smart badge can be clipped on to the user’s clothing, and is in particular designed for use in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital. It helps the deaf or hearing-impaired to easily understand what the wearer is saying. Bringing E Ink’s technology to our everyday lives and making communications much more effective is one of the things I do hope to see more of in the next few years.”