Soon Jepsen and her competitors will take E Ink (and one another) on. At least one other manufacturer says that it will ship an e-reader screen this year with color and video and that, unlike 3Qi, the screen will remain full-color in low-power mode. Made by Qualcomm, the Mirasol display creates pixels with tiny moving metal pieces, just a few micro-meters across, that move up and down to reflect light of different wavelengths and colors. Like E Ink’s screen, it doesn’t need a backlight and uses energy only when changing images.
There are more contenders in the pipeline, too, all boasting some variation of color, video or both. A Philips spin-off called Liquavista plans to produce low-power, video-playing black-and-white screens at the end of this year, and full-color versions by the end of next. They rely on a technique called electrowetting, which replaces the liquid crystals inside an LCD with drops of oil in water that require less electricity to move. The old guard E Ink plans to release a color version late this year, and the company has displays running videos in its labs that it hopes to produce in a few years.
But, as Jepsen reminds me (with uncharacteristic brusqueness) when I mention that there are other fast, colorful reflective displays around: “not that are ready to ship.” Hers is also likely to be cheaper. The 3Qi screen, as a tweak on existing LCDs, is manufactured on the same machinery and from most of the same materials as the 1.5 billion displays shipped every year. As a result, a netbook with a 10-inch Pixel Qi screen should cost little more than one with
an ordinary LCD.
Whether 3Qi succeeds will ultimately depend on the subjective experience of millions of sets of eyes. The circumstances in which people feel comfortable reading turn out to be somewhat unpredictable. For instance, it’s as much a myth that LCDs cause eyestrain because their backlights shine into your eyes like a flashlight as it is that reflective screens like E Ink’s are easier on the eyes just because they reflect light. “Light is light,” says VCD Sciences display consultant Lou Silverstein, a fellow of the Society for Information Display. “Your eyeball can’t tell whether it’s reflected or transmitted.” LCDs and E Ink look different because of the way E Ink reflects light. Its pigments sit at the surface and scatter light in many directions, just as paper does. LCDs and even other reflective screens direct light only at certain angles, so the look isn’t quite as uniform as paper. Jepsen says her team has employed a number of tricks to improve the angle of reflection on the 3Qi, but because it’s still an LCD, it will never look quite as much like print as E Ink.
But it may not have to. The real goal of Pixel Qi, Ryan says, is to “try to ask and answer a big question: What is the device of the future? The idea that people would actually carry three devices—phone, netbook, e-reader—doesn’t seem right.”
So the Kindle-style e-reader may be a transitory gadget, a step toward super-thin tablets that support modern computing just as well as old-fashioned reading. Pixel Qi may help catalyze that change, although it too may find itself a bridge technology, superseded once people cross to the all-color, all-the-time side. By that time, though, Jepsen may have moved on. She has near-term plans to improve Pixel Qi’s current display, making it more efficient and offering it in different sizes. And then it may be back to the developing world, this time to spread the influence of television. “People, primarily in India, are coming to me saying, you know, make us a 10-watt TV,” she says. A battery-powered HDTV may sound frivolous but, Jepsen explains, India’s musical movies are a cultural institution that many people get left out of because of a lack of electricity. “We want to see our Bollywood,” they tell her.
Jepsen’s motivation now, as an entrepreneur, is the same as it was during her days of projecting art-project holograms onto German cities: “My reward for all the technical work is to get this image I can enjoy at the end.”
Senior Associate Editor Lauren Aaronson runs PopSci’s What’s New section and the Best of What’s New Awards.single page
The incredible innovations, like drone swarms and perpetual flight, bringing aviation into the world of tomorrow. Plus: today's greatest sci-fi writers predict the future, the science behind the summer's biggest blockbusters, a Doctor Who-themed DIY 'bot, the organs you can do without, and much more.