Monday, February 02, 2004

Digital paper finally coming... 

Check out this article from the Washington Post (courtesy Dirk).

The device is a rectangular screen just three times the thickness of a sheet of paper and measuring five inches diagonally. It curls into a tube less than two inches in diameter and may soon coil to the diameter of a fountain pen.

With the exception of some invisibly fine gold wires, the circuitry that's inlaid into this flexible page is completely plastic. An internal layer of "electronic ink drops" creates black text on a white background, giving the plastic sheet the look of a paperback page.
Embedded in a thin sheet of plastic are tiny capsules smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, each filled with thousands of particles, some black and some white. The black and white specks have opposite electronic charges, so depending on whether a positive or negative charge is applied to that capsule, either the white or the black specks leap to the sheet's visible surface at that spot.
Unlike standard computer and PDA displays, which generate tiny points of light, the E Ink system simply reflects ambient light off its white background, like a newspaper or book. So it is easily read outdoors in bright sun and at virtually any reading angle. Light-emitting screens are difficult to read in bright places and must be viewed fairly straight on.

The E Ink system also draws far less power than light-emitting systems because it needs energy only to set the image, which remains visible without additional power until it's time to "turn the page" -- that is, call up the next image.
Consumer applications, such as e-maps and e-newspapers that roll up like window shades, remain a few years off, but a stiff version of e-paper is about to hit the market. This spring, Sony is expected to release an e-book using Philips and E Ink technology -- an electronic reader about the size of a paperback that can be loaded with a library full of literature without cutting down a single tree. E-books would also have the advantage of being potentially searchable by key words and could have built-in dictionaries.

The e-book people must be shivering with anticipation at this point. I'd say the biggest arguments against e-books up until this point has been issues of eye strain, power consumption, and flexibility. People have been yelling for years that those problems would be overcome, but it seems like it is finally happening.

Also, besides the issues of digital ink and flexible electronics mentioned in the article, other technologies are coming along at the same time that can help. There is the various flash cards used in numerous devices from digital cameras to pdas. A 128mb card can be found for around $50 these days, and with compression you could fit a whole lot of text onto that. Watch batteries or small rechargable ones can be used. With the digital ink, if you're just flipping through a book as opposed to doing fancy animations, it'd barely need any power at all, only enough to check for keypresses and then to change the page when requested. Bluetooth and other wireless technologies make transfering data very easy, either between devices or using the internet.

When this stuff finally hits, it has the potential to be really big. You could have a thing that looks like a small folded pamphlet with semi-stiff sides. Inside would be standard left and right pages along with a back button on the left side and a forward on the right (probably in the vacinity of where your thumbs would be). There could be basic bookmarking and maybe even an option to change the size of the text for people that have trouble seeing. Stuff like text searches would probably come a little later due to a need for a way to input the text...

One thing that'd be really interesting is if eventually there got to be a standard page, which was separate from the various things like memory, power, input, etc. Since a page that is "set" will stay that way without power, you could give it some data, and then stick it in a pile with regular papers. I'd think that the price of individual pages could go down a lot over time, and you could do stuff like have a "book" device which holds a lot of pages, for those that need to actually be able to flip through pages with their hands.

But none of that seems neccessary at first. As long as there is a relatively cheap portable device which acts like real paper in regards to light and readability, I think it could really be a killer app. It'll be interesting to see what the Sony device is exactly in the spring.

As dots are either on or off, I wonder about the resolution of the early devices. It won't matter so much for novels, but if they can get the resolution high enough to let good grayscale happen, all kinds of possibilities open up. Thinking in terms of comics, DVDs have been a great benefit to anime due to being able to have Japanese and English versions on the same disc. For manga, the same thing might be possible, making things like translations of sound effects be optional overlays. You could also easily include more cultural notes without the added expense of actually including more paper pages. Lots of possibilities for American comics too (at least b&w ones) where letter columns or extra sketches probably wouldn't incur much extra costs.

Of course this also starts to bring up the piracy issues. Sound has always been more conductive to desktop computers than reading, but even there, I'd venture that more people got into mp3s after portable mp3 players came out. Piracy of novels and comics are already happening, but I don't think it'll be a huge issue until these new devices start to get popular. But on the flipside, it'll give big opportunities for self-publishers. The biggest costs have always been printing and distribution, but this would eliminate most of this. There is both novels and manga availible as ebooks on Amazon. I was never that inclined to buy the stuff, but if I actually had a good device, I think that I would.

It could also have good results for projects like Project Gutenberg. They've had books availible for free for ages, and while it is helpful for searching and siting material, most people would rather just buy or borrow a book instead of reading the whole thing on a computer. I remember I read most of War of the Worlds that way and it was doable but not amazingly comfortable... I'm sure more people would get involved once they felt like they were getting a more tangible benefit..

The big issue I guess will be what kinds of DRM gets used as the default formats, how easy it is to get around that, will the pricing on books be reasonable that people won't want to steal, etc. etc.

In any case, I'm just glad that this stuff we've been hearing about for years finally seems ready to become a reality. I love books and reading, but the house is also almost totally out of room for more bookshelves. I'll be ecstatic if I finally get a solution that works all-around...

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