Do you recall the most surprising and rewarding thing that you experienced when trying out the popular e-book format for the first time on an e-reader device such as a Kindle or Nook? For most people it is the astonishingly realistic quality. They are intrigued and somewhat mystified by how much the paper and ink resembles what they see on a traditional printed page. Even the visual color and texture of the paper is crisp, clear, and comfortably viewed despite challenges like bright light that can make reading text on a computer or smart phone screen very difficult. The contrast between the ink and paper is remarkable, and the process of flipping the pages is even much like that of a “real” book.
Most good quality e-readers are so seamlessly designed, in fact, that it is easy to forget that you are actually just looking at pixels of light bouncing around beneath a plate of glass. After a short while most people who read e-books don’t even think much about that aspect of the experience any more, which is proof that the technology is doing its job. The complicated process becomes virtually transparent to the e-book and e-reader user so that it doesn’t at all distract from the reading experience. You can simply dive into an engaging novel, for example, and become completely absorbed in it as you are carried away to whatever imaginary place the author has created for you.
There are many companies devoted to the production of electronic ink and paper, and the leaders in the field are constantly experimenting to bring new improvements and enhancements to the consumer marketplace. The company named Pixel Qi, for instance, does lots of research into LCD technology, and Qualcomm has done work on e-books based on something called biomimetics – which involves the way light moves and reflects against surfaces. The field of biomimetics was inspired in part by research into how light behaves when it is reflected off of the iridescent surface of the wings of a butterfly.
The Fujitsu Frontech company based in Japan, meanwhile, develops e-paper that comes in different colors, and E-Ink, the enterprise behind the groundbreaking Amazon Kindle, is currently working to develop flexible and foldable e-book technology. Thanks to that kind of innovation you may soon be able to read your morning paper or favorite magazine while folding it in half the way people often do when reading a printed newspaper or periodical.
The electronic paper used for e-book displays was actually first invented way back in the 1970s, by Xerox, but it took decades for the technology to become sophisticated enough for today’s portable e-readers. One of the most challenging aspects of that evolution was the development of practical e-ink technology. But nowadays companies led by E-Ink created realistic displays by printing ink onto incredibly thin sheets of plastic film.
Those are then laminated across a layer of computerized circuitry that can subsequently be controlled by a display driver in order to form distinct patters of colored pixels across the film. E-Ink led the way with patented plastic transistors made by Lucent Technologies. These tiny transistors carry just enough of an electrical charge to switch the color of the ink capsules or chips back and forth, enabling the contrast that is seen, for example, between black words against a white page.
Powering Electronic Paper
Since electronic paper utilizes panels of ink made from electricity, the battery power of an e-reader is not taxed by keeping text on the screen. The energy consumption takes place when pages are flipped. That’s when the page uses an electrical charge to reconfigure the tiny e-ink capsules across the page, rearranging them into new words, sentences, paragraphs, and potential plot twists as you read your novel.
You’ll see the page blink momentarily as all of that technological work happens in the wink of an eye. The conservation of power is why the battery life of a typical e-reader device is sufficient to last through as many as 8,000 page turns. You could read a handful of the longest novels ever written on a single charge before having to refresh your battery.