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The Future on Display

(September 2006) posted on Wed Sep 20, 2006

Exploring a New Generation of Signage and Graphics Materials

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By Ben P. Rosenfield

We've come a long way since the cave paintings and petroglyphs of our prehistoric ancestors. The natural pigments and rudimentary tools used to make those ancient drawings and carvings have gone through many changes over the millennia, and this evolution shows no sign of ending. In fact, the pace at which new display graphics technology is being developed has resulted in commercially viable products that would have seemed far-fetched just a decade ago.

The latest high-tech displays rely on innovations such as electronic inks and papers and organic light-emitting diodes—things you may have thought could only exist as special effects in sci-fi movies. But these display systems are steadily coming of age, and major manufacturers are putting them to use in signage, industrial products, and consumer goods. Read on to discover more about these technologies and what unique opportunities they may have in store for you, whether your shop uses screen printing, wide-format inkjets, or other imaging methods.

Electronic paper at PARC

Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Palo Alto, CA, developed the technology for Gyricon, its electronic, reusable paper, in the 1970s. At the heart of a Gyricon sheet are bichromal balls (Figure 1), small spheres that are black on one side and white on the other (and have also been produced in other colors). Bob Street, a research fellow at PARC, explains that these bichromal balls are essentially embedded in a plastic sheet, and then the plastic sheet absorbs a liquid and swells. "The balls start out embedded in a hole, and that hole is made larger and filled with a small amount of liquid so they can move," he says.

The balls are electrically charged to be positive and negative at opposite poles. Applying voltage to the sheet's surface causes the spheres to rotate and show a color. Gyricon can be used to display text and pictures, and the technology is bistable—imagery remains on display until new voltage patterns are applied. But getting Gyricon to that point was a challenge.


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