Imagine sitting at a cafe and reading a print version of your favorite newspaper. Not only does it carry the absolute latest news - posted minutes before you read it - it also features links to various sections and uses the most exciting applications of the Internet today.
After reading the top story about the latest news from the Middle East or Northern Ireland or The White House, you can click on links to past stories or links to specialized sites that shed more light on the matter.
While you read the review of Madonna's latest CD, you can listen to her sing the title song. Then when reading a review of the Tomb Raider movie, you can see a short trailer.
The above scenario may become reality if two rival projects succeed in their efforts. Already, both have succeeded in using a basic image technology for store displays and the electronic newspaper could follow within another three to four years, they say.
Gyricon Media, a spin-off from Xerox, is working on a technology that would enable you to use a plastic or aluminum cylinder measuring about 1 inch in diameter. When rolled out, it would include a sheet that would contain one page at a time from the newspaper. To get another page, you'd push a button and the sheet would roll back into the cylinder and then be replaced by another sheet with another page.
The content would be transmitted through wireless access to the Internet. The sheets would be using Gyricon's SmartPaper technology. This technology consists of a sheet of rubber that contains millions of small balls. An electrical charge would force the balls to rotate. Since the balls have opposite black-and-white colors on each half side, the rotation enables a change of the image. Each pixel in the image is composed of about four balls.
A new spin on an old medium
"The display will be as thick as about three sheets of ordinary paper," says Nick Sheridon, the physicist who is widely credited with making the first serious efforts to create the electronic newspaper, more than two decades ago.
In the 1970s, Sheridan - then a researcher at Xerox' Palo Alto Research Center (home of the mouse invention), questioned how useful it was to have to look at the computer screens of the day.
"Because the monitors of the day worked best in semi-darkness, I set out to make a display that would look best in brightly lighted workplace, as paper does," he says. "I wanted to make a display that had as many properties of paper as I could get [including] wide viewing angle [and] image retention without power."
Sheridon spent more than a year on possible solutions before Xerox decided to pull the plug on the research, needing his help on more urgent business. Two decades later, however, Sheridan was back on the project. Last December, Xerox spun off the work on the Gyricon and created a separate company, Gyricon Media, with Sheridon as research director.
Meanwhile, a rival project got underway. Joseph Jacobson, a physicist at MIT's Media Lab, developed a variant of Sheridon's technology. The balls are filled with a fluid that contain positively charged white pigment chips and negatively charged black pigment chips. When charged, they are pulled up or down, exhibiting the white or black chips.
Along with two students who worked on the project, Jacobson decided to found a commercial venture for the new technology. The result was E Ink, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company founded in 1997 that boasts Lucent Technologies as an early investor and partner.
Current investors also include Hearst and Gannett, two of the largest newspaper groups in the United States, as well as Motorola.
IBM also has been looking at the electronic newspaper, although more as a concept than a real product. Its mock-up won a gold award from the Industrial Designers Society of America in its 1999 Industrial Design Excellence Awards.
"Effectively linking past, present and future, the Electronic Newspaper is smart, fully technological and yet has the feel of a familiar object," commented jury member Dale Fahnstrom, of Fahnstrom/McCoy.
The device consisted of 16 flexible pages, which measured 8.5x11 inches and used tyvak material. A mini-computer - the size of a Sony walkman - was attached to the back and a connection to the Internet would be done wireless or through a TV cable.
"Our intent was ..just to use that as an example of ...what it could look like," says Robert Steinbugler, IBM's manager for strategic design, who designed the concept paper.
Even the first versions from Gyricon and E Ink are expected to be pretty basic. Gyricon's technology only allows for black and white, for example, and neither company will likely include streaming media in its first newspaper versions.
All the same, there are clear benefits from even the most basic electronic papers.
First of all, they represent a possible solution to the ever-growing challenge of meeting demand for paper, which has actually grown after the introduction of the Internet. Instead of cutting more trees, e-paper could be an alternative with both economic and environmental benefits.
The solutions from Gyricon and E Ink also provide significant savings on batteries, since the image remains even when the current is shut off.
Perhaps just as important: The technology can be used on other traditional paper products such as books. So far, e-books have had limited success for a host of reasons. But one key factor has been the fact that reading LCD screens on Palms or other PDA's just don't seem as appealing as reading paper versions of books.
The e-paper technology could solve that challenge. And, since e-paper is expected to cost considerably less than typical computer screens, implementing it for e-books could result in a significant decrease in the price for e-book devices, truly making it a mass-market product.
In fact, E Ink is working with Philips Components, a subsidiary of the Dutch technology company, to develop an application using its electronic paper solution for handheld devices, including PDA's and mobile phones, for e-books and other applications.
"Electronic ink displays are expected to be 30 to 50 percent thinner and lighter than traditional LCD displays," E Ink says.
Prototypes of the handheld devices using E Ink's technology were shown at the June 5-7 week's Society for Information Display Symposium, Seminar and Exhibition in San Jose, California. Philips and E Ink expect the first commercial launch of devices using their technology will take place in 2003.
Both Gyricon and E Ink have already launched practical uses of their technology. Macy's in New Jersey just started using Gyricon's SmartPaper, while E Ink's technology was used for in-store displays at JC Penney as far back as 1999.
While these types of applications hold great promise of revenue relative fast, it's the newspaper application that promises the greatest change, affecting millions of consumers worldwide.
The electronic newspapers won't only appeal to the traditional, dedicated newspaper readers, but also to the many people who don't read papers today because they find them outdated compared with TV and the Internet.
This is a technology that promises to take the benefit of the wireless web today (updated news that can be accessed anytime, anywhere) but without the disadvantages (small screens on phones and Pad's and not-so-reader-friendly image quality compared with paper).
And then there's the classic argument of today's debate of PC (desktop or laptop) versus paper: You can take the newspaper with you wherever you are and not worry about it getting damaged.
"If you carry a notebook, you're always conscious not to break it," says Steinbugler. "I think people are crying out for things that are less precious [and] fragile."
An electronic newspaper would be more robust and "casual", much like print editions of newspapers are today, he says.
A key question, of course, will be cost. Sheridon figures his cylinder should not cost more than around $300, the equivalent of a one-year subscription for a newspaper in the United States.
It's unclear how appealing that would be to consumers. To get sales going, though, newspapers or other institutions could subsidize such devices, much as phone operators subsidize wireless phones today.
"If we can get down to something that is cheap, then it will be revolutionary," Steinbugler says. "If it only costs half [of today's LCD devices], it's convenient. Then it's just an evolutionary kind of thing instead of a revolutionary kind of thing."
Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 17 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.