Xerox and 3M collaborate to bring to market groundbreaking electronic paper

Flexible as paper, versatile as a computer screen, this new material blurs lines between the digital and paper worlds. Could this make paper waste, the largest single landfill component, a thing of the past?

provided by Xerox


erox Corporation has announced that it has selected 3M as the manufacturer to bring to market its Electronic Paper - a digital document display with the portability of a plain sheet of paper.

Developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), electronic paper represents a new kind of display, falling somewhere between the centuries-old technology of paper and a conventional computer screen. Like paper, it is user-friendly, thin, lightweight and flexible. But like a computer display, it is also dynamic and rewritable. This combination of properties makes it suitable for a wide range of potential applications, including:

  • Electronic paper newspapers offering breaking news, incoming sports scores, and up-to-the-minute stock quotes, even as the paper is being read.
  • Electronic paper magazines that continually update with breaking information and make use of animated images or moving pictures to bring stories to life.
  • Electronic paper textbooks, which could amalgamate a number of textbooks into one book, allowing students to thumb through the pages, scan the information and mark-up pages as they would a regular book.
  • Electronic paper displays in the form of wall-size electronic whiteboards, billboards and portable, fold-up displays.

The technology, supported by a portfolio of Xerox patents, has been prototyped at PARC on a limited scale. Xerox' collaboration with 3M establishes a means by which the electronic paper material - essentially the paper pulp of the future - can be manufactured in the volumes necessary to meet market demands and make the development of a wide range of supporting applications commercially viable.

The companies did not publicly reveal a timetable for delivering electronic paper-based products to market.

"In moving from the research laboratory to licensed manufacturing, electronic paper is taking its first step to the commercial market," said Amy Wohl, Wohl Associates. "I look forward to the day when a single renewable sheet of electronic paper offers a never-ending parade of news and information."


How it works


Electronic paper utilizes a new display technology called "gyricon," invented by Xerox. A gyricon sheet is a thin layer of transparent plastic in which millions of small beads, somewhat like toner particles, are randomly dispersed. The beads, each contained in an oil-filled cavity, are free to rotate within those cavities. The beads are "bichromal," with hemispheres of contrasting color (e.g. black and white), and charged so they exhibit an electrical dipole.

Under the influence of a voltage applied to the surface of the sheet, the beads rotate to present one colored side or the other to the viewer. A pattern of voltages can be applied to the surface in a bit-wise fashion to create images such as text and pictures. The image will persist until new voltage patterns are applied to create new images.

There are many ways an image can be created in electronic paper. For example, sheets can be fed into printer-like devices that will erase old images and create new images. Used in these devices, the electronic paper behaves like an infinitely reusable paper surrogate.

Although projected to cost somewhat more than a normal piece of paper, a sheet of electronic paper could be reused thousands of times. Printer-like devices can be made so compact and inexpensive that you can imagine carrying one in a purse or briefcase at all times. One such envisioned device, called a wand, can be pulled across a sheet of electronic paper by hand to create an image. With a built-in input scanner, this wand becomes a hand-operated multi-function device - printer, copier, fax, and scanner all in one.

For applications requiring more rapid and direct electronic update, the gyricon material might be packaged with a simple electrode structure on the surface and used more like a traditional display. An electronic paper display could be very thin and flexible. A collection of these electronic paper displays could be bound into an electronic book. With the appropriate electronics stored in the spine of the book, pages could be updated at will to display different content.

For portable applications, an active matrix array may be used to rapidly update a partial or full-page display, much like is used in today's portable devices. The lack of a backlight and eliminated requirement to refresh the display (since it is bistable), along with improved brightness compared to today's reflective displays, will lead to utilization in lightweight and lower power applications.

Xerox has had significant activity in developing this technology for some time. Although not yet perfected, the technology is currently at the state where it is suitable for development for the first set of applications. They are currently engaging partners in both manufacturing and application areas and see a bright future for this technology.