While Jepsen gets her brain scanned, I sit in the waiting room and guard the tote bag that contains the reason her life is so frenzied: a 10-inch slab of glass that, she says, merges the best of computers and e-readers into a single screen.
Turn on the store-bought tablet PC that Jepsen's prototype screen sits in—she removed the old screen with a screwdriver and swapped hers in—and it looks and acts like any LCD screen, because it is an LCD, only better. LCDs display color and video, but they kill battery life. Electronic ink is more energy-efficient and paper-like, but it's black and white and is frustratingly slow to load a new page. Jepsen's screen combines the best of both technologies. Flick a switch, and the bulb that makes the screen glow will dim. But instead of going dark, only the colors will fade. That's because in Jepsen's screen, ambient light can substitute for backlight, bouncing off the mirror-like material that Jepsen has added to each pixel to reflect shades of black and white. With the lamp completely off, the screen, called 3Qi (pronounced "three chee," as in qi, the Chinese word for "spirit," and a geeky pun on the 3G wireless network), displays letters as crisp and readable as those on Amazon's Kindle. In this mode, 3Qi uses about one fifth the power of a normal computer screen, Jepsen says. And unlike the E Ink–based Kindle or any other widely available e-reader, it still does everything a regular LCD does, including play videos.
As Jepsen will say in her talk tomorrow, "The future of reading is screens." She puts it to me more bluntly: "Books are toast." She's not talking about reading, just dead-tree delivery, and there's evidence to back her up. Between January and September of last year, $112.5 million worth of digital, downloadable books were sold, up from $7.2 million during the same period five years earlier. Since the introduction of the Sony Reader Digital Book in 2006 and the Kindle in 2007, the number of e-readers sold in the U.S. has more than doubled every year—an estimated one million in 2008, three million in 2009, and a projected six million this year. According to one forecast, that number could rise to 77 million worldwide by 2018.
That may be hard to believe given the single-task capability of current e-readers. But once a screen arrives that combines the best of laptops and e-readers into a single, affordable package—once a flip of a switch can transform your high-definition-movie-playing color laptop screen into an e-book with enough battery life to last a trans-Pacific flight—then things get more interesting. Laptops could become simple flat touchscreens, and e-readers as we know them could eventually become obsolete. If the future of gadgets is in the screens, Jepsen is trying to write that future.
So are plenty of others, of course. And this could be the year the leaders in the display race pull away from the pack. The cellphone-chip giant Qualcomm; the current e-reader display leader, E Ink; and at least one other major player are set to release next-generation e-reader screens by 2011. But Jepsen's hybrid screen is likely to be the first and the least expensive of the bunch. Her company, Pixel Qi, which is based in both Silicon Valley and Taipei, will, by the time you read this, have started a run of millions of screens. Although Jepsen won't name brands, she says these will soon appear in netbooks, tablet computers and dedicated e-readers.
The Pixel Qi screen I'm guarding in the hospital waiting room is one of a few thousand that currently exist. Jepsen had shown it to me earlier in the day, so I restrain the impulse to pull it out of her bag to do my reading. I knew that in the black-and-white mode, the screen makes reading the newspaper as easy on my eyes as, well, the paper itself. Because the black-and-white portion of each pixel is so large (and because parts of that little pixel-portion can be turned on and off individually), the resolution in black and white is nearly 200 dots per inch. It's remarkable, and I understand why despite being an underdog in this race—a woman doing business in Asia, competing with some of the giants of the electronics business, all the while managing a life-threatening medical condition—Jepsen is on the cusp of something big. And why she's so busy fielding interest that she can step out of an MRI visibly relaxed. "That's the most time off I've had in a long time," she says as she steps out of the imaging room.
How It Works
3Qi combines two kinds of displays—an ordinary color LCD and a low-power, high-resolution black-and-white version—into one package. Here's how it pulls it off:
Part of each pixel acts like one in a normal LCD screen: A backlight [A] shines through a layer of liquid crystals [B]. The crystals control how much light gets through, depending on how they shift their orientation when zapped with electricity. The light that makes it past the crystals passes through red, green and blue filters [C], which tint and combine the light to create the colors on your screen.
Bouncing Black and White
Turn the energy-sucking backlight down, and the pixel reflects light instead of producing it. Ambient light [D], whether from a lamp or the sun, enters the display and hits a large part of the pixel that's covered in a mirror [E]. The beams bounce back out through the liquid crystals, which change the brightness of the light that escapes, just like in the color mode. But instead of shuttling through color filters, which absorb and dim rays, that light exits through an empty space—so you see it as white, black or one of 254 shades of gray in between.
Fantastic. Looks good too. How does it stand up to Apple's new 10" iPhone reader coming out in two months for $1,000.00?
Sounds awesome! although that full-color contender might be problematic in a few years.
I love the long articles with interviews and technical descriptions. Keep them coming
The screen is a technology marvel, but I don't buy into the tricorder concept (one device that does everything).
I'm of the opinion that ereaders will become amazingly cheap. So, why would I want an expensive universal device? I might risk a 20-50 buck reader at a beach or on a picnic, but not a $500+gadget that had a lot of my personal data.
Not to mention conflicts in operation. If I get a phone call while reading a book/ebook, I just put it down and answer the phone -- no pause mumbo jumbo. By the same token, if I'm downloading yet another Windows update or some other huge file, I can still talk on the phone and/or read a book/ebook.
I think that there is a strong market for the tri-corder device.
The only advantages a smart phone has is portability. With a Blue Tooth, the netbook sized laptop in my briefcase or backpack has all the connectivity I need to answer calls (or read an audio book to me while I ignore another conference meeting).
Laptops only weakness is size and battery life. (1) Improve the screen and you extend battery life. (2) With a two screen set-up using a touch screen keypad and you get something thin enough to be reasonably portable.
E-reader's only advantage is battery life. If I can use my laptop as an eReader with extended life, why wouldn't I want one? If it can let me surf the internet, call my wife, read a book, watch TV, take notes, draw a picture, and read my a story, it would be well worth the price - - - the price, of course, of carrying it around in a man-purse.
now THIS is the future of ereading !
I plan to buy as many of these as I can get my hands on, and distribute them to my relatives. The computer industry is not listening to the customers, but Mary Lou Jepson is.
Islam and Sharia Law are taking over the lands in modern Europe as you read this. Make the stand today and educate yourself on this dire matter!
LOL!!!! "The price of carrying it around in a man purse."
AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Ah come on man its just a purse!!!! Are you homophobic? Come on man being with another man aint so bad. I mean I've experimented and it aint so bad. Just bite the pillow when it starts to hurt.
"If it can let me surf the internet, call my wife, read a book, watch TV, take notes, draw a picture, and read my a story, it would be well worth the price - - - the price, of course, of carrying it around in a man-purse."
I would say that that's true if you're dainty.
Men like me don't need a "murse" and we don't need a fanny pack either.
I want one of these devices to be durable and hands on. I want to be able to toss it onto the car seat and stare at it while I'm sitting on the toilet and I want to be able to kill a bug with it when I'm out on the Parcourse, doing elevated pushups. I move about in the leaves and the grass. I live near a large forest preserve, and I want a tough, waterproof, scratch-resistant and dependable device that will let me sit down and look at something brilliant that I've written. I don't need a PC. I need a reader. Big difference.
I also want a reader that can take a beating. I wonder if it would be possible to design the outer shell like the rugby cell phone? they can stand up to the test. So why cant the apply that to all the new technology comming out into the world? However, they would still need to slim down the shell though. thoes phones are extremely thick.
Mary Lou Jepson is an amazing woman with an amazing story and OLPC was and is an amazingly altruistic concept worthy of the support of us all. Pixel Qi, however, I don't really get. Where are the big time product announcements to support the pub? I know they had some demos at CES and will likely at 3GSM, but outside of engaging discussions with Jepson, what's there? This isn't like OLED where they are engineering a completely new tech. My big question is why would venture folks put all kinds of money behind a lowest-common-denominator tech like pixel qi (power sucking inside, no color or video outside) instead of something like liquavista or mirasol. liquavista's a ways off, but mirasol seems like an amazing display technology equally as imminent as Jepson's Pixel Qi. www.mirasoldisplay.com
They should make the back a solar panel, for charging in places that don't have easy access to electricity, like rural Africa. A camera would be nice too, it would make for an interesting photo taking experience, because it would be like looking through a window, and saving the scene.
Don't let this woman fool you. She cares nothing for kids ... only money. The author might check with her step children. They are now adults but were barely teens when she began pursuing their married dad. There's not an altruistic bone in her body. She may be bright as an engineer but since this piece is largely personal it must be said she is a very self serving woman.
that's good news
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Digital papers are becoming more appealing as we become comfortable with our new approach to communication and publication. I am interested in this machine for my daily news, yet twelve months ago I personally would have rejected the whole concept of holding a machine to read my news articles. I have arrived fully into the techno age.