Put the elusive pipedream of the paperless office out of your mind for a moment and consider this: paper isn't so bad, especially when it's actually a digital display that can exhibit all manner of electronic documents.
Prototypes of such a missing link between paper and computer screen exist today in the cluttered lab of Nicholas K Sheridon, a senior research fellow at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in California. Sheridon invented Gyricon, or Electric Paper, a silicone rubber sheet that, including its plastic sheathing, is as thin as poster board and about as floppy. By virtue of thousands of tiny embedded plastic balls that act as pixels, Gyricon sheets can hold digital images for months without power and can display those images off the juice of two AA batteries. Moreover, the sheets refresh and update images much the way a monitor does.
Electric Paper could offer a more natural-feeling way to handle and store documents than a rigid, clunky laptop does. The information in documents is constantly changing, and Gyricon displays can constantly change with it.
Gyricon sheets in mass production could be priced at about 25 cents apiece, according to Xerox laboratory manager Bob Sprague. All the computing power would reside in either a binder holding the sheets or in a wand or stylus device. Either gadget would receive data wirelessly and imprint text and images on the sheets, refreshing them as often as needed.
Because all the power, weight and cost is on a remote server and the wand or binder, Electric Paper theoretically provides a window to the spontaneity and bottomless capacity of the Internet in a package as reader-friendly as paper and as dispensable as a floppy disk.
In practice, however, many technological wrinkles remain to be ironed out. Don't expect workable products for a few years, Sprague says. Among the challenges: increasing resolution, sprucing up the whiteness from the current LCD gray, developing full colour, making the sheets fully erasable and shielding them from electrical interference.
Sprague says Xerox has begun to work with a partner to address manufacturing logistics. Here, too, there are myriad questions: How will the wand and binder devices be fabricated? What needs to be done to establish the drivers and interfaces among the devices, corporate networks and the Web?
Gyricon works when an electrical charge is applied to the tiny plastic balls, which are suspended inside the sheet in pockets of oil. Each ball is black on one side and white on the other. Depending on its charge, a ball shows one side or the other. Those pixels compose a full screen of text and graphics. The wand or binder manipulates the electrical fields in which charges are applied.
The devices eventually could read the pages as well as write to them, making them two-way.
Daniel Rasmus, an analyst at Giga Information Group, says the displays could make it easier to electronically mark up documents. Workers could treat electronic documents like paper ones: they could lay a Gyricon on a table, mark it up with a stylus and scan their input back to the server.
Terry Richards, information technology director at the National Association of Realtors, says Electric Paper seems intriguing and is likely to have useful applications. But Richards says he couldn't immediately identify a need that Electric Paper would fill.
For Sheridon, seeing Gyricon in use would be the culmination of decades of work. He first developed Gyricon in 1977. "Xerox decided they weren't really in the display business then," he says.