Xerox crafts electronic paper

They may have let the graphical user interface slip through their fingers, but the leaders at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center aren't about to let their latest digital invention get away.

The copier company is gearing up to move electronic paper from the research laboratory to commercial production. On Tuesday, Xerox announced that office-supply company 3M will help produce electronic paper. It touts the product as a breakthrough, combining the portability of a piece of regular paper with the interactivity of an electronic document.

Xerox offers no estimate, however, as to when you might be able to buy products made of electronic paper.

Electronic paper is based on a Xerox invention called gyricon. Gyricon sheets are thin layers of plastic incorporating millions of tiny beads that act somewhat like toner particles in a fax or copier machine, according to Xerox. The beads, contained in oil-filled cavities, rotate when electrical charges are applied to the gyricon, showing different colours and creating images, including text and pictures.

Various devices will be able to create images on the paper. Xerox is developing one called a wand, a scannerlike device that fits in a purse or briefcase.

When not in display mode, the electronic paper takes on a greyish hue, according to Donna Fleming, a communications supervisor at 3M. Right now, the electronic paper is bichromal -- that is, it is capable of displaying only two hues, white and another colour. However, Xerox and 3Com are working to add more colour capacity, Fleming says.

Paper pulp of the future

Xerox envisions electronic paper being used to give magazines, newspapers and textbooks moving images that can be continually updated. Or, electronic paper displays, similar to a billboard, could be folded and moved around.

Working with 3M, best known for inventing Post-it notes, will help Xerox produce electronic paper on a mass-market scale. 3M is also developing supporting applications for the product.

Xerox and 3M are trying to determine which applications make most sense and are workable, and then plan trials, Fleming says. Electronic paper-based products for consumers are a least a year away, she adds.

Xerox developed the material for electronic paper, which it calls "the paper pulp of the future," in its well-known research facility in Palo Alto, California. The same Xerox unit helped create the graphical user interface concept, which was further developed and marketed to great success by Apple and Microsoft.

The electronic paper product is based on a number of technologies already patented by Xerox, and the company has produced a limited number of prototypes for the product at its research lab.

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