Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Could E-Paper Actually Turn Out to be Useful?…July 2006

Today, it is a beautiful sunny summer day here in Seattle. The temperature is in the high seventies and a few white puffy clouds are drifting by. Lake Sammamish is already at a nice temperature for water skiing. And what am I doing? I am sitting at my desk in my office writing this column. The view out my window is nice enough, but wouldn’t it be even nicer if I could be sitting by the lakeshore while I do this enjoyable task? That would make this the truly perfect day.

So why am I here and not there? Well, duh! It’s this “minor” problem that I don’t have a sunlight readable display on my computer. As a matter of fact, I don’t even have a shady-light readable display. My LCD laptop is good for indoor use but I would need to be in a dense forest on a gray cloudy day to use it outdoors. The desktop display is of course no better -- even if I could somehow get it down to the lakeside park location. What I really need is a nice reflective display that looks something like a page from a book. Ah ha! Something like E-Paper!

I have never been able to understand the various attempts at making electronic books. A regular book is a very nice and mature technology that happens to be superbly convenient to use. Why else would we all dream about “curling up with a good book in front of a warm fire on a cold winter’s night”? It is rare that we have the time or the desire to have more than one book’s worth of information to carry around. Students may have this need and certain professions such as attorneys may also benefit. But for most of us there is little (or maybe even a negative) benefit in converting a printed text into an electronic tablet. Books are so easy and comfortable to use that holding an electronic box instead is – like holding a clumsy electronic box.

However, now that we have become eternally-connected information junkies, wouldn’t it be wonderful to send e-mails, surf the net, and write columns anywhere and under any conditions? Today, I want to be outdoors by the water. Tomorrow I may be in a sunlit airport terminal. Why can’t I have a laptop computer that has a nice reflective display? Maybe I could even have one with interchangeable displays? Why not start this whole process with a monochrome high-contrast reflective display for sunlight use and have that as an interchangeable alternative to the regular full-color LCD?

There is certainly plenty of relevant precedent for such an approach. For many years, cameras have had interchangeable lenses. Not so many years ago, Tektronix had a major line of laboratory oscilloscopes with interchangeable modules for various measurement functions. Household appliances regularly come with a variety of interchangeable attachments.

Perhaps this idea of interchangeable displays could be taken even further. For example, why not have the option to take only a mini-projector attachment with us on a sales call? There may be no need for a conventional display during such a visit. And why not have the option to use a variety of display sizes? Of course we can do all of that now using the VGA or DVI plug in the back. But what I can’t do is to remove the display that came with my laptop. I also do not know of any laptop-size reflective display monitors that can be operated separately off of a battery.

So there you have it. Finally, an interesting application for E-paper. Clearly, there is a real need that this solves, since right now I would REALLY like to be sitting on a park bench or down by the water. Or how about out on a boat? That could be even more enjoyable – but even more of a challenge for a good sunlight readable display.

Sunlight readability is one of the few remaining unsolved problems for the display community. E-paper has been a solution looking for a problem. Is there any reason why bringing this problem and this solution together would not result in a happy marriage?

Let me know what you think. As always you can reach me through this site, directly by e-mail at, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.