Stop the presses
Physicist Nick Sheridon's goal is to make what you are
now holding in your hands a thing of the past. Concluding
our special report, KIM HONEY looks at the brave new world
of the paperless newspaper
Tuesday, March 6, 2001
Almost 30 years ago, physicist Nick Sheridon was working at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, one of the most respected commercial computer-research labs in the country. These were heady times for Xerox: In 1972, Alan Kay had come up with the Dynabook. The computer scientist had envisioned something that would improve upon the qualities of paper, something book-like that you could hold in your lap. But the technology lagged far behind his vision of a flat panel display that you could write on with a pen and read as you sat under a tree.
When it was built, the prototype, called the Alto, was so big and clunky it had to sit under the desk. Reading the cathode-ray tube (CRT) screen was like watching television with your nose to the set: People drew the curtains, turned off the lights and shut the door when they wanted to use it.
Sheridon started thinking about a way he could improve upon the CRT screens, and his first idea was to do away with anything that emitted light. What people needed, he thought, was something with the properties of paper: You could look at it from wide angles and there would be no glare, and it wouldn't glow.
He devised a couple of solutions, but the one that interested him most involved billions and billions of two-toned plastic balls, just .01 millimetres in diameter, embedded in tiny cavities and randomly arranged in a sheet of rubber. Once the rubber had been soaked in oil and absorbed the viscous liquid, the balls would be free to rotate in their little pockets. If an electrical charge was applied to the sheet of rubber it would retain the charge; when it was zapped again with low voltage, the balls would rotate, presenting either the white side or the black side to the viewer.
By grouping the balls together in groups of four, Sheridon created pixel-like units that could be used to create text and images. The beauty of it was that once the balls had rotated, the electricity could be removed and the balls would stay in position until the rubber was zapped again.
The possibilities were endless for a display as thin and flexible as paper that required far less energy than a traditional computer screen, but Sheridon was intrigued by the concept of a plastic newspaper that could be printed with the latest news and erased to make way for updates.
He worked on it for a year, "long enough to get my teeth into it," he says, putting his concept into practice in the lab. He wrote a couple of papers, once of which was published in the Journal of Applied Physics, and applied for and received some patents. But about 1974, his bosses at Xerox's PARC told him to abandon the project and concentrate on printing technologies. The Japanese were gaining on Xerox in that market, and the company wanted to fight back.
For almost two decades, Sheridon did as he was told, but that didn't stop him thinking about his invention. Around him, researchers were building better and better displays, yet computer users still preferred paper, printing out e-mails, for example, once they hit half a page in length.
By the time Xerox cancelled the printing-technology project in 1991, Sheridon was a senior research fellow, the highest level a scientist can reach in a corporate research lab.
"It was a licence to work on anything I like as long as it made sense," he says. "I was absolutely convinced there was a real need for recyclable paper."
He went back at it, certain that his idea for electronic paper was going to save a few million eyes and a few million trees. One of the interesting things about his invention, he thought, was that you could make a very simple, low-cost printer that required no chemicals -- no ink or toner -- to put the text on the plastic newspaper after it had been downloaded from a satellite or cell phone. The experience of reading on the plastic paper "comes pretty close" to reading on real paper, he says, and it has the added benefit of being reusable. He called the resulting plastic product Gyricon.
PARC has now produced 16-inch-wide sheets of Gyricon and, in partnership with 3M, has manufactured a huge roll of the electronic paper, proving it can be made in large quantities.
The first Gyricon products off the assembly line, which will be shipped this year, will be pricing signs for grocery-store shelves, wirelessly connected to a computer so prices can be changed with ease.
Sheridon estimates he can have a newspaper ready for the market within three years. He envisions people carrying an aluminum or plastic cylinder not unlike an archer's quiver. Inside, a 16-inch by 28-inch sheet of Gyricon would be wound tightly around a spring mechanism so you could pull it out of a slit in the side like a window shade. As it was unrolled, it would pass through a printer-like device containing the day's news downloaded from the Internet by wireless connection to a cellphone or a satellite. The slit in the cylinder would contain an array of electrodes, powered by a battery, that would provide the charge necessary to align the bichromal balls into patterns that make letters on the page.
"The best thing I like about the cylinder is it is absolutely the cheapest way of doing this," says Sheridon. "It's kind of like carrying an umbrella around. In fact, I'm sure someone will make an umbrella and a reading cylinder in one unit." He thinks it would be impractical if it were to cost any more than the current price of a year's subscription to a daily newspaper, or about $300.
It would consist of just one sheet, and users would go from page to page simply by re-inserting the electronic paper into the slit and punching in the required page number on a keypad on the outside of the quiver.
Gyricon's possibilities don't end there: They include a book with electronics stored in the spine to provide instant updates, or a wand that could be pulled by hand across a sheet of electronic paper to create an image.
Xerox has spun off a separate company, Gyricon Media Inc., to develop the electronic paper. But now Sheridon, as head of research for Gyricon Media, finds himself in a horse race with several rivals.
Microsoft has developed software that makes reading an LCD screen easier on the eye, while E Ink Corp., a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working on technology for electronic paper similar to Xerox. E Ink says it will have an electronic newspaper by 2003. At Philips NV in the Netherlands, scientists are working with light-emitting polymers, a technology that relies on plastic chips as semiconductors instead of silicon chips. Unlike Xerox's bichromal balls, all the colours of the spectrum are available, but Philips says a newspaper version is "years" away.
Underpinning this flurry of high-tech activity is the knowledge that most people, when confronted with a long document, still print it out.
"You get a pretty good display on a modern computer terminal, but it's just much nicer to read it off paper," Sheridon says.
That's because, no matter what angle you hold it at, there is no glare, the contrast is crisper and the resolution -- the clarity of the printed words -- is superb. And that's the reason, most scientists now agree, that the paperless office never came to pass and the production of cut-rate paper exploded as superfast printers made it easier to produce long documents.
"You can never do better than paper," Sheridon says. "I don't actually know why. It's been around for a few thousand years, so the collective unconscious of mankind has now been redirected towards liking it."
Paper has a satisfying aesthetic that it seems cannot be surpassed by electronics. It's something to do with the feel of a new sheet of crisp, white bond and all the promise it holds compared with the insistent, workaday blink of the cursor on a blank screen.
We are, of course, dependent on paper for many more reasons than that. At the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (PAPRICAN), president Joe Wright will tell you reading and writing paper is just a fraction of what is consumed. Don't forget facial tissues, diapers, wrapping paper, boxboard, napkins and bank notes.
"When people ask the question 'Is paper going to disappear?' it's always from the point of view of books and newspapers," says Wright. "That's only part of the paper market. A vast amount of paper goes into consumer products. Just tell me you're going to go back to washing hankies once a week."
Skeptics might ask why we need to replace paper if it's doing such a fantastic job.
"They replace it because they can," says Stewart Hough, a physics major and engineer who is vice-president of business development in the Americas for England's Cambridge Display Technology. "It's not that it's a better solution. Microsoft is in the business of selling operating systems and software, so they're going to promote their view of the world."
His company, also known as CDT, is the world's leading supplier of light-emitting polymer technology (it licenses its technology to Philips NV).
Hough has a long list of reasons why electronics will never replace paper: Technophobes will avoid it, you can't reproduce the experience of leafing through a book or magazine on a single sheet or screen, and the devices needed to read books will cost too much compared with a traditional paper book.
But his most compelling argument is the assertion that it would take a massive investment to replace the present infrastructure of mills and printing plants that supports the paper industry.
"Being able to demonstrate it in a lab or at a trade show is one thing," he says. "Supplanting the world's current infrastructure in printed materials is another. If you look at how pervasive printed publications are in the world, the ability of displays to replace that massive infrastructure will take decades and decades, just by the sheer volume of it."
At McGill University, Professor Peter F. McNally has one major concern about a world in which all of our information is delivered electronically, and that is the long-term ability to preserve that information.
"What is the lifespan of this material?" asks McNally, acting director of McGill's graduate school of library and information studies. "How long can a CD last?"
As he notes, technologies supercede one another at such a clip that we often lose the ability to retrieve stored information because no one thought to save a working version of the necessary hardware.
Despite the drawbacks, however, the president of Paprican says paper-industry leaders are too complacent, with only a few looking for new opportunities to balance future threats from the electronics sector. Wright points to smart packaging as a market niche with potential. He talks about sensors embedded in paper that could help couriers track parcels, or tell your microwave how long to cook your dinner.
Some environmentalists are welcoming this potential blow to the paper industry, citing the logging companies that cut down old-growth forests to feed the world's huge hunger for more paper. The fewer books, newspapers and magazines there are, they argue, the better off the environment will be.
But Hough, the skeptic who works for Cambridge Display Technology, notes that not only are forests a renewable resource, but paper is recyclable. What happens to all those batteries, which contain corrosives, and all those displays with backlights, which contain mercury?
"The materials used, the plastic and the heavy metals and the mercuries and things, those don't recycle well at all," he says. "Which is a worse solution? It seems to me the equivalent number of displays in circulation being sold and being thrown away is a worse scenario than the current conservation issues relevant to paper."
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It's portable, reusable and could read as clearly as a newpaper.
USING THE PAPER
The electronic information can be downloaded from a modem connection to the Internet, through either a cellphone or computer connection.
The scroll holds a single sheet of electronic paper wound around a spring mechanism. As it is pulled from the scroll it passes a line of electrodes which transfer the electrical information onto the paper.
To read another page the paper has to be returned into the scroll and drawn out again. The first image is erased and replaced with that of a new page.
HOW IT WORKS
The paper contains billions of tiny balls. Each ball is half white, half black. The balls are sandwiched in a bed of oil between two rubber sheets.
Text and images are created by electric impulses which change the orientation of the balls to show either the black side or the white.
It is possible to create two or three shades of grey by using lower electrical pulses to rotate the balls partially, showing a mixture of black and white.
Each ball is one-10th of a millimetre wide (shown magnified at left). These would produce a resolution of 100 dots per inch (dpi). Xerox has also worked with balls as small as one-20th of an inch wide which would produce a resolution of 200dpi. (A newspaper uses 200dpi images, but its text resolution is much higher.)
The image is robust -- the balls will remain fixed in position until an electrical pulse alters their orientation.
The paper is single-sided as the inverse of the image would appear on the other side.