You are probably reading this on a computer screen or a printout on paper. Little has changed in these two modes of display in the past decade. Yes, the monitor may have gone from CRT to LCD, and the printout may have gone from being on a dot-matrix printer to a laser print-out. But in essence, it is still a static, two-dimensional world out there.
Computer processing power has leapt ahead to far beyond what is needed on the desktop. As specialised graphics chips from companies push the envelope, it is now becoming possible to think of a more realistic 3-dimensional display. In addition, companies such as eInk are also experimenting with providing an electronic paper where the display ink gets dynamically configured based on what needs to be shown.
Lets begin with the displays. The world of video games has long provided for realistic worlds using powerful consoles. This world will soon come to the mass market desktop. A Wired article (July 2002) on Nvidia (which makes graphics chips) describes the possibilities:
Eye candy – the purple glow along the horizon at sunset, a city skyline during a thunderstorm, the wrinkles in a puppy’s face, pornography – has power. While computers today mainly convey text information and 2-D images, advances in graphics processing will change what’s on our screens. And soon, high-res screens could be everywhere.
It doesn’t take much imagination to envision new uses for 3-D imagery. Already, many rental cars come equipped with a satellite-guided, 2-D map and a robo-voice that scolds you for missing a turn. Before long, they’ll have 3-D maps, like those being produced by Nvidia partner Keyhole Technologies, with the terrain rendered in real time. You’ll know what landmarks to look for, how to route around road construction, and how far to the next In-N-Out Burger. Same for air travel. F-22 fighter pilots already use simulated 3-D environments in the cockpit. Another Nvidia partner, Quantum3D, sees the day when commercial jets will have screens that render airscape in real time to help pilots fly, and land, in zero visibility. Or how about medicine? One day, doctors will use 3-D as freely as scalpels during surgery.
The electronic paper revolution has been led by E Ink. The technology is described on its website:
Electronic ink is a proprietary material that is processed into a film for integration into electronic displays. Although revolutionary in concept, electronic ink is a straightforward fusion of chemistry, physics and electronics to create this new material. The principal components of electronic ink are millions of tiny microcapsules, about the diameter of a human hair. In one incarnation, each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles suspended in a clear fluid. When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule where they become visible to the user. This makes the surface appear white at that spot. At the same time, an opposite electric field pulls the black particles to the bottom of the microcapsules where they are hidden. By reversing this process, the black particles appear at the top of the capsule, which now makes the surface appear dark at that spot.
To form an E Ink electronic display, the ink is printed onto a sheet of plastic film that is laminated to a layer of circuitry. The circuitry forms a pattern of pixels that can then be controlled by a display driver. These microcapsules are suspended in a liquid “carrier medium” allowing them to be printed using existing screen printing processes onto virtually any surface, including glass, plastic, fabric and even paper. Ultimately electronic ink will permit most any surface to become a display, bringing information out of the confines of traditional devices and into the world around us.
Taken together, 3-D displays and electronic ink will change the way we receive and interact with information in the years to come.
Tomorrow: A Review