Questioning Technology: The Electronic Book

One of the most difficult design issues today in the creation of electronic media is the treatment of text. Most of us dislike reading long passages of text on a computer screen or LCD display. Because of this, media creators must make very fundamental decisions in the design of web sites and software that contain the heavy use of words.For all the technology now available, nothing even comes close to the good, old fashioned book for the display of text. It's simple, inexpensive, portable, requires no electricity and offers a superior high definition display for the written word. So how do you create the equivalent of a book for electronic media? It was a question that intrigued Joseph Jacobson, 30, a physicist who received his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992. "In my first year of college at MIT I worked on a 3D display," recalled Jacobson. "Since then I've had an interest in flat panel displays in general. A couple of years ago I began thinking about the most radical thing one could do -- perhaps the toughest thing one could do -- that is combine all the fine characteristics of a traditional book with 1990s Web and Internet capability." Today, Joseph Jacobson is poised to change the world. He and four undergraduate students are hard at work developing a promising new technology for digital pager at MIT's Media Lab. The research is being underwritten by 34 companies as part of the Lab's "Things That Think" Consortium.The idea is to create a universal book whose 200 or so pages can be "typeset" again and again by the reader. Once the book's pages are loaded with text by a computer, the pages will retain those words until they are reprogrammed with new content. Such a reprogrammable display in the form of a traditional book would allow the creation of a one-volume library where the content changes but the book itself remains the same.According to the Media Lab, the technology that makes all this feasible is an electronic "ink" made of tiny particles that are black on one side and white on the other. These particles flip over, depending on the electric charge underneath them, making patterns that look like traditional type. A computer embedded in the book's spine would program these particles to "set" the desired text, which would remain stable until reprogrammed. Also, once the content has been downloaded to the book, the power can be turned off and, unlike a laptop PC, the reader will not be burdened by a battery.Such an electronic book, which will have the weight, feel and other attributes of a regular book, is not pie in the sky speculation, says Jacobson. He expects to develop all of the technology required to build a commercial version of the book within two years. "There don't appear to be any showstoppers," said Jacobson. "We have a way to do each piece of the technology to bring it to fruition."Currently, Jacobson and his team are working on fundamental technologies for the project. "One is electronically addressable contrast media that can be coated onto paper," he said. "On that front we have successfully developed the particles that constitute the technology and we have demonstrated some pixels flipping in test cells."Jacobson said the testing is being done with conventional paper. However, he said, for purposes of durability the final product will probably uses pages made of tough artificial weaves containing such materials as polyester or Kevlar.New text data could be loaded onto the pages several ways. One is from embedded on-board memory in the book that could contain as many as several hundred titles. Another might be through the purchase of new titles stored on memory modules that plug into the book for loading. And a prime source is expected to be the Internet, where millions of titles are available.Digital paper, said Jacobson, could also be made into other forms. Say newspapers, for example. A set of pages the size and shape of your favorite newspaper could be reused on a daily basis to download the latest edition.Jacobson said one of his key design goals is to keep the process inexpensive. "Each of the processes is geared toward mass production," he said. "For example, the particles that are doing the flipping. We have processes to make those in extremely large quantities very economically."Joseph Jacobson's "radical idea" might eventually solve one of the pressing problems of the electronic age: How to read electronic text in the bathroom, in bed or on the beach.

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