Flexible friends will possess brains as well as beauty

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Some people may wear their hearts on their sleeves but what about their computer displays?

Raj Apte, a research scientist in the Electronic Materials and Devices Laboratory at the Palo Alto Research Centre (Parc), foresees a time when computer displays can not only be folded like newspapers, but put on to backpacks and even clothing.

He explains: “I imagine building flexible displays that people can have on their clothing or certainly on their wrist or items of apparel.”

He says that mounting a cheap flexible display on a backpack would be trivial and could turn people into walking billboards. “People will become advertisers and they’ll advertise the things that they want to advertise.”

Such innovative displays may not be as far away as you think.

At the IFA electronics trade show in Berlin this month, Philips’ Polymer Vision unit unveiled a prototype mobile reader with a paper-thin 5in display printed on a roll that retracted like an extendable rule.

The Readius – currently only a concept device – can display monochrome text and basic graphics.

In the future full-colour versions could be produced to support full-motion video at larger screen sizes, said the company.

The device uses a display from US-based E-Ink which produces a film-coated plastic using tiny particles that move to the surface of the film when charged.

The result is a high-contrast technology that has already made its way into Sony’s Librié e-book reader in Japan. E-Ink’s displays are bi-stable, meaning that once a small voltage has been used to alter the display on its flexible material, the image stays there, even when power is removed – an important factor in preserving battery life.

E-Ink’s material is an example of roll-to-roll display printing.

Conventional flatscreen LCD displays are created by manipulating sheets of rigid glass with complex patterns of transistors etched into them.

This makes them expensive and difficult to produce, and they also need a constant power supply.

Today, just as the Financial Times is printed on large rolls of paper using conventional ink, E-Ink’s digital “ink” is applied to a long roll of film. The film is then put on to flexible plastic containing the electronics that control the display.

E-Ink, which will launch full-colour versions of its displays late next year, would like to print those electronics on a roll in the same way that they print the ink itself, says senior marketing manager Darren Bischoff.

“Then you could make large low-cost displays.” As it is, small form-factor E-Ink-based displays could theoretically be put on to textiles and other surfaces, he suggests.

E-Ink’s rival Gyricon, a commercial spin-off from Parc, also prints its “ink” on to a roll. It uses microscopic balls, black on one side and white on the other, suspended in fluid. When a charge is run through the material, a ball can be flipped to display black or white, creating a monochrome image.

The technology uses available room lighting, and Gyricon is already using it in universities to create room signs that can be updated automatically via a wireless network, explains Bob Sprague, chief technology officer.

“There will be a sign on every classroom door that tells you what class is there in the next hour,” he says, adding that the signs are managed by a central piece of scheduling software.

Using new display technology for digital signs could revolutionise markets such as retail, says Manoj Thanigasalam, vice president of business development at another bi-stable display vendor, ZBD Displays.

Bi-stable digital signs offer benefits even if retailers simply want to automate the scheduled replacement of thousands of price labels, says Mr Thanigasalam, but it could also enable them to be smarter about pricing.

“Some fish departments have to destroy 15 to 20 per cent of their stock because it goes out of date,” he says. “The retailer wants to dynamically control that price over days to manage inventory levels.”

Doing it manually on a large scale would be too difficult to manage, but updating signs wirelessly makes it possible.

But companies such as Gyricon and ZBD could have a fight on their hands when Fujitsu’s display technology hits the market.

In July, the company previewed a colour bi-stable display printed on thin, flexible material.

Fujitsu, which eventually wants to include the capability to show video at 30 frames a second in the material, hopes that products based on it will become available in 2008 for everything from digital signs to operating manuals, portable media devices and even advertising on trains.

We may not see bendable screens on our backpacks just yet, but new technologies are prompting mini-displays to appear in some interesting places.

Russian designer Artemy Lebedev hopes to prototype a keyboard this autumn which uses Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) to turn each key into a programmable display unit.

The result could be a keyboard that could change the images on keys to suit different software.

It could provide extra instructions for users, making unfathomable key combinations a thing of the past and potentially reducing training costs for staff.

Tomorrow’s display technology will clearly have brains, as well as good looks.

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