Electronic Ink Devices: Are they worth your attention?

Electronic Ink Devices: Are they worth your attention?

In a world driven by information and communication, it’s not shocking to see that people are glued to their screens.

According to a 2020 research article published by the NIH, adults on average spend 28.5 hours on their phones a week, up from 25.9 hours in 2018. Even if we were to exclude this statistic from our day-to-day use of technology, we all still spend much time sitting in front of computers, television sets, and miscellaneous devices. And this can be straining on our eyes.

Blue light, which most commonly is emitted by the sun, is also produced by emissive screens such as LCD and LED screens. That device you’re reading this with contains the power of the sun. And like the sun, it hurts your eyes after staring at it for too long. So then, is there no way to access digital information without causing significant eye strain? Not until recently.

Electronic-Age Paper

The electronic ink or E-Ink screen is a black-and-white reflective screen rather than an emissive screen. What this means is that instead of creating light and projecting the image into our eyes, the E-Ink screen creates the image, and requires an existing light source so that the image may be seen. Think of it as more akin to a sheet of paper than to a TV screen. As such, E-Ink screens are more visible the lighter there is, whereas LCDs and LEDs are hard to read in brighter light. However, with no light, E-Ink screens cannot be read, because they need external light for the content onscreen to be visible.

The E-Ink company purports that its screens have many benefits over emissive screens, including high durability, low eye strain, and low power consumption. The power consumption is so low in fact, that they claim that using a 12-inch E-Ink screen for 20 hours, reading up to 1,200 pages, consumes enough power to drain a singular common AA battery. Additionally, they express that an LCD device of the same size, used for the same time to read the same number of pages uses 36 AA batteries of power while the E-Ink device only uses 1. Effectively, the E-Ink screen is 36 times more efficient than the LCDs of today. And their justification for this is that their E-Ink screens are bistable, meaning that the image on the screen stays even if the screen is not powered. Basically, the only time when the E-Ink screen uses power is when the image on screen is changing, while LCDs and LEDs constantly need energy to keep producing light. 

In today’s world, the uses of E-Ink stretch far and wide. Perhaps the most common use is in reading tablets, such as the Kindle. The E-Ink screen’s low power consumption and similarity to paper lends itself well to readability, so it tends to feature in devices based around reading.

Note Taking

As for writing, a notable example is the reMarkable E-Ink tablet. A tablet designed to replace every notebook you own, it sounds like a good idea. As of recent, the reMarkable 2 has arrived, and with many improvements, but also many areas to improve in. The first reMarkable fell short in many people’s eyes for various reasons, and it stands to reason that the second iteration of it should see improvements. However, some of the biggest issues have remained-notably, the huge lack of cloud compatibility. reMarkable does not allow its users to use other cloud storage services (e.g. Dropbox, GDrive, Evernote) without paying monthly fees. reMarkable also lacks support for many document types, supporting only PDFs, JPGs, PNGs, and EPUB ebooks. You also can’t search for files like you can in a proper file explorer, meaning that you will have to keep your files very well organized if you want to be able to find a document you made long ago.

Other types of E-Ink devices

Beyond reading and writing, E-Ink is used for more bizarre, yet interesting purposes. For example, recently, BMW designed a car that can change its color on the driver’s command to suit their mood. It’s a novel use. Imagine being able to instantly switch your car between different colors on the fly. Better yet, imagine if you could instantly change the designs on the car. There could be a lot of crazy-looking cars out on the road and people could personalize their cars much more easily. Perhaps we could even encourage situations where cars change designs constantly, or in response to various phenomena. A use we have already seen in real life that could be applied is advertising. Replacing LED billboards with E-Ink would save large amounts of energy and money. Though, in some cases, the use is a bit bizarre and illogical. Recently, designs for a truck with a billboard on the back surfaced from a partnership between RoadAds and Visionect. It’s an interesting idea, but the idea is weakened by the fact that an advert would take focus off the road and potentially raise crash rates in cars. So I guess there goes reactive color-changing cars.

A simple use of E-Ink that currently is in development is within tabletop gaming. A prototype project dubbed Wyldcard seeks to “combine the nostalgia of a virtual pet sim and the multiplayer functions of an RPG,” using cards made from E-Ink screens encased in resin molds. The cards are able to change as you play, as would be suggested by the use of E-Ink. This brings the tabletop experience closer to video games, making play more interactive.

Where E-Ink Can Go Next

A wonderful article by Ink and Switch, an independent research lab purports the idea of programmable ink. Where this differs from E-Ink is that programmable ink is a concept-stemming from the editability of spreadsheets and the accessibility of sketching. Spreadsheets are “programmable in the moment,” meaning that depending on what the user aims to accomplish, they can add behaviors to the spreadsheet, such as formulas for calculating finances, physics, and other things. Programmable ink aims to allow the user to add behaviors to sketches rather than data cells. According to Ink and Switch, two potential cases of programmable ink are:

  • “An event planner draws up a list to pair things that need to be done with people available to do them. After a bit of connecting lines and boxes, they add some behavior to highlight the remaining unmatched people/items to make them easier to see. Later on, they need to do this again for a different event, so they turn this first version into a template for easy re-use.”
  • “A furniture designer sketches patterns for a table leg. After they decide they love a pattern that repeats a vine figure in a spiral down the leg, they automate the hand-drawn spiral pattern so they can try out different vine shapes instantly as they sketch. This helps them explore the design space quickly and stumble onto entirely new designs.”

Programmable ink would serve as an amazing, almost magical tool for in-depth thinking and sketching. If this concept were applied to a device like the reMarkable, it could revolutionize sketching as a process. A device known for long battery life and remarkable(heh) similarity to paper, that retains the immense utility and adaptability of a computer would only see benefit with the addition of such a powerful thinking tool. And imagine adding a solar cell, so it could charge in the light, where it is best used…

Why isn’t it in use yet?

In its current form, E-Ink is still very useful. E-Ink E-Readers are fantastic for their purpose; they are able to contain thousands of books and documents for consumption, and they don’t impart blue light. So why don’t we see them more often? There can be multiple reasons. Maybe people already have a device and don’t want to buy another one. Perhaps they do not have the money to afford it. Maybe they just don’t like the idea. Or, in the case of our school, the services provided by the E-Readers weren’t enough.

All things considered, E-Ink screens have yet to find a major purpose beyond reading and writing, but once it receives more attention, perhaps it will be featured in more novel applications. Until then, it’s still worth keeping in mind, its advantages over our traditional existing electronic screens.