Roll Over, Gutenberg

It will look like any other digital sign. Every minute or so, the message will change. It might flash, "Bananas on sale," because it knows that there are too many bananas in the stockroom.

The sign will be made with electronic ink. It will be wirelessly connected through a two-way pager to the store's inventory database, allowing the sign to change its message according to stock demands.

As intriguing as signs like this may sound, they're just the beginning of what Cambridge, Mass.-based E Ink Corp. hopes to accomplish. The company is a leader in the development of electronic ink and "paper" that could replace newspapers and books as we know them today.

The use of electronic ink and two-way wireless communication could lead to the creation of electronic books that will renew themselves with new selections when readers are finished with the current book - or newspapers that update themselves with the latest news while being read.

Electronic ink, as devised by E Ink, is a clear, liquid plastic in which there are microcapsules that contain white color chips in a blue dye. The microcapsules are suspended in a substance similar to vegetable cooking oil.

The white chips are negatively charged so they react to electrical stimulus.

This ink can be spread on any surface - from walls to computer screens - says Russell Wilcox, vice president and general manager at E Ink. However, he says, the writing surface would look similar to a very thin laptop display screen with a clear surface on the front and circuitry on the back.

A positive charge applied on the top surface of the ink will allow the white to show, making the surface as white as a sheet of paper. If the charge moves to the bottom, the dark particles will show, giving the appearance of blue ink.

Electronic ink uses less power than a PalmPilot, Wilcox says, and the message remains displayed even after the power is turned off.

The ultimate goal is for the electronic pages to look and feel like paper.

However, for the foreseeable future, these new books are likely to be bulkier than paperback books.

Wilcox says electronic ink will have interactive qualities, although E Ink isn't sure people will be able to write with it for a while - they will mainly receive messages. There should be demos for an electronic book with flexible pages within the next five years, he says.

Xerox Corp. is also working on a technology that could replace paper as portable, renewable reading matter.

The Xerox technology is called Gyricon. It's composed of a silicon rubber compound with the thickness and flexibility of poster board. The Gyricon sheets have thousands of plastic balls suspended in oil. Each ball is black on one side and white on the other and together they act as pixels to display images.

Images can be updated much the same way as with a monitor.

The beads are embedded in a large sheet, with each microcapsule suspended in oil to allow the beads to rotate in their orbits, says Robert Sprague, manager of the document hardware lab and electronic paper projects at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.

Sprague says the paper could be powered by a matrix of transistors, such as those in laptop computer screens. Gyricon uses reflective light, like real paper, so it would use less electricity.

A Gyricon book will eventually be connected with a wireless device that will enable a reader to download content from the Internet.

Xerox will also make the Gyricon interactive, so a user could write on it and reuse it.

Users can download electronic books now from sites such as Maynard, Mass.-based SoftLock.com Inc., New York-based Barnesandnoble.com LLC and other book providers. While the technology exists for users to download a novel to their desktops, laptops or even specially made handheld devices, consumer and publisher interest in this area just doesn't exist, says Scott Griffith, CEO and president of SoftLock.com.

For electronic books to become mainstream, technology must be used to improve reader interfaces and downloading time, says Griffith.

Most people don't want to buy a device that downloads only books, or they don't want to download extensive text to read from a screen, he says.

"Publishers' general reaction to e-books is that they think they'll be working with ink and paper forever," Griffith says.

"How does the publishing industry make the e-book as big as the paperbacks?" he asks. "Paperbacks were not a substitution for hardback. It was a new product, a new market that needs a different price. We've yet to come up with that notion for e-books."

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