An electronic newspaper is a self-contained, reusable, and refreshable version of a traditional newspaper that acquires and holds information electronically. (The electronic newspaper should not be confused with newspapers that offer an online version at a Web site.) The near-future technology - researchers expect to have the product available as soon as 2003 - will use e-paper (electronic paper) as the major component. Information to be displayed will be downloaded through a wireless Internet connection. A number of versions of the future technology are in development, although there are two frontrunners: Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is working on a newspaper that would consist of a single sheet of their e-paper (called Gyricon), while Lucent, in partnership with a company called E Ink, is working on a multi-page device (also called E Ink).
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The Gyricon version consists of a single sheet of transparent plastic, containing millions of tiny bichromal (two color) beads in oil-filled pockets. Text and images are displayed through rotation of the beads that occurs in response to electrical impulses: a full rotation displays as black or white, and a partial rotation displays as gray shades. Nick Sheridon, a senior research fellow at PARC, has been working towards a viable electronic newspaper for over twenty years. Sheridon sees Xerox's device as consisting of a sheet of Gyricon wound around a spring mechanism in a lightweight cylinder. The user would pull the page out of a slit in the cylinder; in the process, the page would pass over a printer-like device which had downloaded data from the Internet through a wireless connection. To access another page, the reader would return the sheet to the cylinder, select the page, and draw the sheet from the scroll. The device could be carried like an umbrella, and would fit in a large purse or a briefcase. Sheridon projects that a Gyricon-based electronic newspaper could be available within three years. Currently, Gyricon uses 50-micron beads for a resolution of 200 dpi (dots per inch); the use of 30-micron beads will increase resolution to 300 dpi, slightly better than that of traditional newspapers.
Lucent's E Ink device uses electronic ink and combines thin, plastic, flexible transistors with polymer LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to create what are called smart pixels. The process involved - which is not dissimilar to traditional printing processes - uses silicon rubber stamps to actually print tiny computer circuits onto the surface. E Ink uses electronic ink for display: millions of tiny capsules filled with light and dark dyes that change color - charged dye particles move either up or down within the capsules - when exposed to an electric charge. According to Paul Drzaic, the director of display technologies, prototypes of the device have been running on watch batteries. Although the technology has been used for retail signs, Lucent says that an E Ink-based electronic newspaper is still at least 10 years away, because electronic ink has not been sufficiently developed to make complex displays practical.
IBM is also working on an electronic ink-based device. IBM's electronic newspaper is in a book-like format, and is constructed of 16 pages of flexible, fiberglass-reinforced paper, each about 8.5" by 11." The lightweight pages are bound by a rigid metallic bar, and covered with a clear, protective cover sheet. Charged dye particles move either up or down within the capsules - causing light or dark areas to appear in the display - when exposed to an electric charge . The whole device could be rolled or folded similarly to a traditional newspaper. Like the E Ink-based electronic newspaper, IBM's version is several years away.
The challenge involved in creating a viable electronic newspaper is to develop a device that has the desirable characteristics of traditional paper in addition to its own inherent benefits (such as being automatically refreshable). Like traditional paper, the electronic newspaper must be lightweight, flexible, high-resolution, glare-free, and affordable, if it is to gain consumer approval. Sheridon proposes that the Gyricon version could cost about the same as a year's subscription to a regular newspaper.