TeleRead Update #10 | Return to TeleRead Home Page

A Few Words on Butterflies,
Puddles, Rainbow Screens and Electronic Books

Every good pooh-pooher of electronic books must pontificate on the shortcomings of computer screens, especially those of portables. Screens drain batteries too quickly. They blur. Or text and background merge infuriatingly. The monitors of desktop machines also fall short, and it is not just the flicker of the cheaper models. Try curling up on your sofa with a NEC MultiSync XV17+. If a deity had wanted us to read e-books, He would have given us cords and plugs, so we could skip the screens and let the words go directly from printed circuit boards to our brains.

Then again, what if something as low-tech as a puddle or a butterfly wing could help pave the way for sharp, flickerless, high-contrast screens that could work with computers optimized for the reading of books? Suppose these displays were as easy to read as paper and sucked up less than a tenth of the battery power that other portable screens did.

No, this nirvana isn't here yet. But Xerox already has made screens with laser-level resolution, even if they are battery hogs. 3M has developed Liquid Crystal Displays that are brighter than normal or, if you'd prefer, much less greedy with battery power. Depends on the configuration. Important work is also going on at Kent State. Over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meanwhile, researchers are working toward books that could display changeable text on flippable pages. To me as a civilian, however, an equally intriguing possibility may be a technology that imitates an oily puddle or butterfly wing and shows up on a fixed screen.

If you pour a little oil into a puddle in the sunlight, you'll see a rainbow in the water; different materials are coming together, and a multicolored reflection ensues. The same happens when a butterfly flaps its wings. "Reflect" is a key word with the new technology, too. It doesn't need backlighting, and you can read in bright or dim light, just as with a book. Not surprisingly, then, given the importance of reflection, "Iridigm" one of the names of the new technology. The "Iri" stands for iridescence, and the "digm" is short for "paradigm" or model. Another name is "IMod," which stands for, ugh, "Interferometric Modulator." I myself prefer two friendlier terms--"rainbow display" and "rainbow screen"--even if they may not be unique enough to send trademark lawyers or technologists into deepest ecstasy.

Unlike a rainbow in a puddle, a rainbow display lets humans control the hues and shapes, so that the screen can spell out words and show photographic and even TV-fast images in color. As described by the Iridigm Display Corporation of Boston, the display is like this. A network of little roads traverses the screen, and scads of tiny bridges cross each of the roads. Electrostatic charges vary the heights of the bridges over the roads, changing the colors and also producing blacks and whites as needed. The bridges are made of an aluminum and the roads are made of a material similar to one used to coat eye-glasses.

Mini-interstates aside, are extra-high-quality displays about to hit Radio Shack next month so we can read War and Peace with no more wear on our eyes than paper would give us? No. The Iridigm Display Corporation is commendably anti-hype. Erik J. Larson, the president, says the contrast is not good enough right now; and beyond that, it would be impossible at present to produce a good rainbow screen that was big enough for book-reading. Among the first beneficiaries may be the tiny displays on cellular telephones. But Larson, an M.I.T. grad like the inventor, Mark Miles, believes that larger screens for notebook and tablet computers will arrive in the next few years.

What's more, Larson predicts that contrast will improve to the point where the text will stand out just as much as on glossy white paper. Even more impressively, resolution could at least match that of the power-hungry Xerox displays and maybe even reach 1000 dots per inch, although, as a practical matter, 300-600 dpi should suffice. No flicker will torture you; a rainbow screen is not a cathode ray tube with electronics scanning every whichway across the screen. Nor will you feel as if constantly gawking at a florescent light. On top of that, a rainbow screen can survive a drop on floor or an Arizona sun blazing through a car window.

One downside of rainbow screens is that they cannot yet give you hi-fi color. Another challenge is the complexity of making them, the precision required to set out those little roads and bridges. The technology would require hundreds of millions for the factories. Prices of the displays themselves will be in the hundreds of dollars at the start, or too high for the throwaway computers that I would love to see.

Still, Larson expects that prices will undercut those for active-matrix screens, the ones with the best display quality in mass use right now on existing portables. And the technology could use factories now making liquid crystal displays. Considering the miracles of mass production in slashing prices, we might yet be talking about truly bargain-priced displays in the end.

If rainbow screens pan out, I see them as a great technology for TeleRead, a three-part proposal to upgrade the old-fashioned kind of literacy along with the computer kind. First, a focused procurement program for schools and libraries could encourage the use of privately owned, tablet-style computers that excelled for reading. Second, a well-stocked national digital library would put books online for rich and poor for free, with fair compensation to copyright holders. Third, TeleRead could cost-justify the digital library by popularizing electronic forms, which could run on the same little computers and save billions in paperwork even if just a fraction of the population used them. A TeleReader machine could work fine with a pen interface. In other words, by touching a stylist the right way against the proper part of the screen, you could move from page to page or chapter to chapter within an electronic book. Or you could use the pen to fill out an electronic form. Yes, Larson says a pen interface would be just as possible with a rainbow display as with a conventional LCD screen.

Imagine if TeleRead were around to whet the interest of investors and consumers in technologies such as Iridigm's, 3M's and Xerox's. TeleRead could start very small and build slowly as screens improved for reading electronic books, and as electronic forms grew in popularity. Let's hope that Larson, Miles and associates succeed. If not, others eventually will. Already Iridigm Display has enjoyed financing from large corporate partners, and the number of people at Iridigm will soon grow from two to twelve.

Significantly, however, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, not the private sector, underwrote Miles' early research in rainbow screens. This technology goes back to the 1980s, but seems more practical these days because of recent developments in manufacturing techniques. Commendably here, Washington took the long view, and, just as with the Internet, it did not just entrust the original R&D to the vagaries of the private market. While we should deplore technodoggles, there is a place for carefully spent money and enlightened leadership from our national government. Perhaps the White House and Congress can live up to the pro-literacy rhetoric so dear to politicians, and use TeleRead to help accelerate demand for the right screens and other hardware for reading e-books.

--David H. Rothman, August 1, 1997

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