November 11, 2005

The Wishing Ring, part 1

Hatched by Dafydd

Here are three upcoming inventions that you probably haven't thought much about, but which will revolutionize the world. I will divide this post into three parts, to give the illusion that I have more to say about it than my feeble imagination can actually dig up.


Assuming you are over the age of twenty-five and know what a book or magazine is, open one up. Take a look at it. Very different from a computer screen, eh? You can lie on the couch or on the floor and still read it. You can even read it in the bathtub without electrocuting yourself (unless it's the Neve Campbell issue of Maxim). You can take it with you to the beach or the mountains, read it in direct sunlight or by flashlight on a camping trip. You can look at the centerfold under the covers when your Mom thinks you're asleep, which is how most of us got our first glimpse of Byte Magazine.

Now imagine a book or magazine that looks exactly like print -- but whose software driven words and pictures morph on the paper like a webpage. That, my slavish devotees and soon to be competitors, is e-paper, also sometimes called smart paper, though one company seems to have trademarked that phrase.

In one version under development by Gyricon, Inc, a spinoff from Xerox's famous Palo-Alto Research Center (PARC), the "paper" actually comprises tens of millions of tiny balls, like pixels... say as many as 1250 to the linear inch, the typical density of professionally printed magazines today. These spheres are contained between two sheets of clear polymer by a sticky fluid, allowing them to twist and spin freely (much like Bill Frist's political spine).

That would make almost a hundred and fifty million on an 8½ x 11 size sheet. In the simplest case, these spheres are black and negatively charged on one side, white and positive on the other. Like registers in a computer, tiny currents running alongside the spheres can flip any particular one to be either black side up (a black dot at that position) or white side up (a white dot). Flipping the right sequence of balls creates words, line drawings, even graytones. Anything that a super high quality laserjet printer can print can appear instantaneously on a page of e-paper, only to be replaced by the next page whenever the reader clicks the page-turn button.

The albedo (reflection) would be identical to ink on paper, meaning you could view it in direct sunlight or under a reading lamp; it would not be backlit. The smart book would probably include its own book-lamp, so reading in the dark would be just as easy as in the daylight.

A more complex version would use spheres with red, green, and blue sectors, in addition to adjacent spheres with black and white. This would operate like a color television screen or monitor, giving you full color illustrations.

Other versions of e-paper include products under development by E-Ink, where extremely tiny black spheres and white spheres float together in a viscous medium. Please don't start singing "Ebony and Ivory," or I shall do you a violence. All these black and white spheres (and the fluid) are contained within a larger sphere (about the diameter of a human hair).

The black spheres have a negative static charge, the white are positive. By creating a static charge on the bottom of the container, either the black or the white spheres can be sent to the top, where they become visible, giving you either a black dot or a white dot. Add them up, and you have a "printed" page. Distinct hotspots on the bottom of the hair-sized container with distinct static charges can send a mix of black and white spheres to the top, giving you a grayscale.

Finally, there is the possibility of crystal "pixels" that can simply change color in response to tiny electrical currents.

How would this change the universe? You must understand that the huge majority of readers cannot read lengthy books or entire magazines on monitors... or at least, we do not enjoy doing so. Those who get much of their news from online sources sometimes have a hard time grasping how many people are locked out of instant, online publication simply because they can't or won't read on a computer monitor. But with e-paper, "books" would be reduced to mere software, yet would be just as readable as the printed page. Online would cease to mean "on a CRT screen," and could mean on a "paperback book" in your pocket, with the same flexibility and internet access as a hand-held web portal. Blackberry soup for the soul.

Ordinary readers could carry hundreds of books with us wherever we went. If we needed a book we didn't have, it would be a download away.

But more to the revolutionary point, e-paper -- which is coming sooner than you might think -- will end up blogifying the mainstream print media. Today, if you want to publish a book or magazine in any quantity, you have to scrape together $20,000 or more. Various "instant press" companies can print you single books at a time; but they require a much higher unit cost to print than printing in quantity, which cuts into your profits as an author.

Therefore, authors have to submit proposals or manuscripts to editors at big publishing houses in New York. These editors have tremendous power to determine what does and does not get published; before a reader can read a book, an editor (usually a New York leftist) has to buy it first. The few publishers that will handle conservative or libertarian books (notably Regnery Publishing) get so many submissions from authors locked out of the mainstream press that they cannot possibly publish them all... or even the tiny fraction of authors who are worth more than $1.29 -- clothes, pocket change, blood chemicals, and all. And you know they're just going to love me for putting their URL up here!

But when anyone who can use text-editing and page-layout software can "publish" a book or magazine (by selling downloads) that looks just as professional as those from Warner Books or Time Life Publications, the distinction between a professional e-paper magazine and an e-paper magazine from the pajamahedin will boil down to editing and advertising. This will break the back of the New York literary mafia, the gatekeepers to literature and nonfiction for the masses. Reviewers will become the new elite; if you know you like the type of books that I like, then if I recommend some e-paper book in a review, you'll likely buy a download... especially since the cost will be tremendously less than buying a hardback from Amazon.

The author makes much more money per book because he owns it; rather than getting a mere 10% royalty on each copy sold, as he gets today (if he's lucky), his profit would be income minus expenses; books could be sold for half of today's prices and still net the author five times what he makes per book today. Which is another way of saying that an author can make the same profit from a book by selling only 20% of what he would sell through a big publisher. Ordinary people, who don't have multi-million dollar advertising budgets and distribution to thousands of bookstores, can still sell enough books to live on writing income alone.

E-paper is to books and magazines what blogging is to online publication... except E-paper will reach orders of magnitude more readers.

Next invention from the ring of three wishes: High-Temperature Ceramic Engines.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, November 11, 2005, at the time of 11:44 PM

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The following hissed in response by: BlueNight

The big application is in industrial business. I work as a large document scanner, converting ink-and-paper blueprints to bits for the construction industry.

Imagine being able to see a PDF of a blueprint, then with just a gesture (combining it with multi-touch like the iPhone) zooming into a detail in one corner of the building plan. "What size is that? Oh, 3/4" bolt." Multipage PDFs with the page index hyperlinked to the corresponding pages. AWESOME.

The above hissed in response by: BlueNight [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2009 10:57 PM

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