E Ink Watch, Android Phone, and Flexible Screens

E Ink at CES 2013First off, I must disclose that I was already a fan of E Ink (electrophoretic ink) technology prior to my meeting up with the company that makes the technology at this year’s Consumer Electronics Exposition (CES) in Las Vegas. Now that I’ve seen color E Ink displays, Android devices utilizing E Ink, flexible E Ink screens, and even an E Ink watch, color me a bigger fan.

In case you’ve been hiding in a bank vault the past few years, you’re probably already familiar with some of E Ink’s innovations. Anyone who has used a simple grayscale Kindle, Nook, or Kobo e-reader has seen the company’s display technology in action; I remember first seeing E Ink demonstrated by Sony sometime in the mid-aughts. I was impressed by the technology and immediately wanted a Sony Reader, which was then priced at around $500. Today, you can buy a Nook or Kindle for around $100, complete with a Wi-Fi radio installed for easy downloading and sharing of books. (The earliest Sony Reader devices required transfer of content via USB.)

Today’s electrophoretic ink display technology is incorporated into devices ranging from e-book readers to E Ink watches. E Ink displays are light, flexible, thin, and have low power requirements, making mobile devices the perfect form factor for the technology. Perhaps the greatest benefit of E Ink, as opposed to other display technologies, is the potential for a reduced amount of eye strain over prolonged use of devices using the displays. Not only are E Ink displays of a resolution that mimics that of printed paper, but they are able to be viewed in sunlight better than most other types of displays.

As good as E Ink technology is for reading, one fact remains: color. Though most books are served best in black and white, most textbooks and magazines are colorful products, begging to be read using a color display. With high-resolution display technology being incorporated into mobile devices such as iPads and MacBook Pros, is E Ink on its way out? Not by a longshot. The company demonstrated that it’s not resting on its laurels, with representatives showing me devices currently sporting E Ink displays that are capable of displaying up to 4,096 colors. That’s right: color E Ink is coming to devices near you. These devices are currently being sold outside of the US, but are certain to be making their way to our shores soon. At best, the color displays will challenge Retina and other high-resolution color display technologies in the marketplace and serve consumers well; at worst, the increase in competition will keep the prices of mobile displays in check, serving consumers well. It’s a win-win situation.

I’m especially excited about the flexibility the technology enables. Some of the prototypes demonstrated at CES showed off E Ink’s ability to be manipulated harmlessly, which is a feature you won’t find in current mobile display devices. Missing pixels? Not likely with E Ink; you can bend an electrophoretic ink display around your wrist and use it as a watch if you’d like. In fact, I was introduced to just such a device at the E Ink booth. With color E Ink displays just around the corner, I can imagine flatter-than-iPod mini devices that we can wrap around our arms for reading our favorite magazines and books. Soon, there will be no excuse for failing to bring your textbooks to school — you’ll have them all right there on your person, always. Are you excited? I am.

Most of the products E Ink showed at CES are available today. One of the most exciting prototypes (by definition not yet available) was the YotaPhone, a dual-sided smartphone that sports an LDC screen on one side and an E Ink display on the other. This enables the phone to save consider battery life when the phone’s E Ink side is being used in place of the LCD side. I was also able to see a working Android E Ink phone. Now I’ve seen everything. (Well, not everything — but a lot!)

All we need now is an Instagram-enabled digital photo frame made with an E Ink display. A color E Ink display — one that eats up less power than the digital frames on the market now.

This was written from CES 2013, where I covered the event for AMD. Discover the latest product announcements from AMD at AMD Live.