Liquavista: Threat to E-Ink?
Barely ten days into January, 2010 is already being hailed as the year of the ereader. However, recent developments indicate that 2010 could be the beginning of the end for dedicated ereaders as new multi-function devices become the ereading devices of choice for consumers. Even as the Apple Tablet looms over the horizon, companies like Pixel Qi and Qualcomm hope to antiquate e-ink based devices with new display technologies that offer full color, video-capable refresh rates and enhanced indoor and outdoor viewability while still consuming far less power than traditional LCD screens.
Another such company is Liquavista, a 2006 spin-out from Philips Research Labs in Eindhoven, Netherlands. The key to Liquavista’s display technology is electrowetting, a technique that uses electric fields to change how solid surfaces interact with liquids. Liquavista’s electrowetting displays consist of a layer of colored oil between a layer of water and a solid water-repelling surface. In this stable state, the layer of oil is visible to the viewer through the water. When a charge is applied, the layer of oil changes its shape, exposing the solid surface below and changing the perceived color of the 3-layered surface. Such manipulations are performed at the level of tiny pixels to create a full-color screen. The power consumption of Liquavista’s display technique remains low because the stable state requires a low constant charge and the solid surface below the layer of oil can be made reflective to maintain screen brightness without the need for a backlight like in LCD screens. Most importantly, the electric transformations that manipulate the layer of oil can be applied several hundred times a second, giving the technology the ability to render video.
In October 2009 Liquavista demonstrated a 6-inch device running video on a monochrome display with 64 shades of gray (compared to the Kindle’s 16). The official name of the monochrome technology is LiquavistaBright:
At CES this year, Liquavista displayed the color version of LiquavistaBright. The demo below compares a contemporary e-ink screen with LiquavistaColor technology.
At CES Liquavista also demonstrated a concept device called the LiquavistaPebble (video below), but few specifics were released beyond the description of the curved shape of the device.
While Liquavista’s technology sounds promising, the biggest challenge for the company isn’t technical. Pixel Qi has already announced a partnership with Notion Ink to bring a color e-reader to market this summer, and there have been strong rumors about the next Kindle using Qualcomm’s Mirasol color display. So far Liquavista have only announced a partnership with chip-maker Texas Instruments, who plan to use Liquavista in their ‘next-generation e-reader development platform’. There are reports that Liquavista-based devices will not be available before the first quarter of 2011, by when Pixel Qi and Qualcomm’s Mirasol may have made significant inroads into the ereading market.
E-ink based displays have played an important role in creating the current market for ereaders and continue to dominate the market as the screen technology of choice in e-readers from Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble. But e-ink (and dedicated e-reading products) might be forced into oblivion as new multi-function devices offer more bang for the consumers’ buck. Sri Peruvemba, vice president of marketing at E Ink, is still not convinced. “If I give one of these devices to my daughter and I know she’s going to make phone calls on it and surf the Internet on it, I’m not going to be motivated to buy it for her”.
If the lack of features like video and voice continues to be E Ink’s unique selling proposition, display innovators like Liquavista might have much to cheer about this year.