A History of Flexnology
Despite having a strong association with modernity and contemporary technology, flexible displays have a storied history stretching back nearly fifty years. The roots of the technology stretch back to innovations of the 1970’s but have endured a difficult evolution, despite consistent interest from developers. Funding issues, a lack of corporate backing, and technological restrictions have all played a significant role in slowing progress.
It is only in recent times that flexible displays have begun to shake off a reputation for gimmickry and a lack of understanding from the general public, and we are now see the popularisation and development of flexible displays, with ePaper leading this change in attitude.
The seeds for the development of ePaper were planted by Xerox PARC, a research and development company based in California, who developed Gyricon in 1974. Gyricon sheets were thin and transparent sheets of plastic, within which millions of small beads were distributed at random. These beads could show one of two colours, rotating to show a different colour when voltage was applied.
Gyricon was envisioned for use in ebooks, portable signage, and foldable displays, with Xerox positing that an e-newspaper could be a viable application even in the late 1990’s. The material was discontinued in 2005, however, as Xerox were unable to find a cost-effective source for backplane technology for Gyricon frontplanes.
An exciting start followed by setbacks was the pattern for many institutions attempting to develop flexible displays, even if they were able to establish powerful backers. The ASU Flexible Display Centre, for example, is a 250,000 square foot premises established in Arizona in 2005 with the benefit of a $43.7m donation from the US Army Research Lab.
This level of backing showed a real confidence in the future of flexible displays, as did a subsequent collaboration with Hewlett-Packard, but ambitious aims were again cut short. An initial prototype scheduled for 2006 from the centre was delayed by two years, and Hewlett-Packard announced in 2010 that it had no intention of utilising technology for flexible displays; they “simply make displays thinner and lighter.”
Bending the Mold
In spite of such setbacks, flexible displays have been bolstered by the advent of ePaper, which has benefitted from persistent development for over a decade. The unique strengths of the material have demanded interest from suitors looking to incorporate ePaper into their products. A durable and non-reflective surface makes it well-suited for both personal and public displays, whilst solar capabilities and exceptionally low power consumption are desirable characteristics both in urban and rural environments.
This interest has been driven primarily by the work of small, innovative companies who have invested in the potential of the material. Plastic Logic is proud to have remained one of the foremost names amongst this group; we established the world’s first plastic electronics factory in Germany in 2007. Here we are manufacturing flexible ePaper displays in different sizes and form factors by combining ePaper technology with our leading organic-based transistor matrix.
Efforts like these have seen our convictions vindicated by public interest; ePaper displays can be found across the globe. Traffic signs in Sydney utilise the material, as do bus stops from London to Aizuwakamatsu.
We are at a high point in the development of ePaper as a figurehead for flexible displays and are seeing more creative innovations appear than ever before. By 2012 we were able to overcome a drawback of ePaper technology by broadcasting 12fps video on our displays. In 2017 we collaborated with Liber8 to create the Tago Arc, the world’s first wearable bracelet and earlier this year made a breakthrough in display density to provide a 500ppi ePaper display. There is more technology and incentive to push ePaper to its limits than ever before, and continuing to drive innovation that will expand the boundaries of ePaper.