Modify E-book reader designs for digital signs

One of the useful attributes of electronic paper (such as E-Ink) is that it doesn’t take any power to retain an image, it only takes power to change the image. This is good for long-lasting E-readers, and digital signs are one of the other key applications of electronic paper, though today they are sold with a focus on the retail market.

Earlier, I wrote about concepts for a fourth screen which is an always-on wall computer that has effectively no user interface — its purpose is to show you stuff that is probably of interest to you based on time of day and who is looking at the screen. That proposal requires that the display be located where there is power, but there are many locations where wiring in permanent power is not a readily available option.

The typical e-book reader has all the hardware needed to act as a very low-power digital wall display. Such a display would have electronic paper and wifi. It would only wake up very rarely to briefly check, over the wifi (or better still bluetooth) if there is new data to display, in which case it would download it and display it. During these updates, it might also check to see if there is a new updating schedule.

You can do better than wifi, which usually requires a process of associating with an access point, getting an IP address, and then making queries. Bluetooth can connect with lower power. Even better would be a chip which is able to listen constantly at very low power for a special radio pulse (“wake on pulse”) from a powered transmitter, and then power on the rest of the system for data transfer. The panel could be put anywhere, and then a pulse generator would be put somewhere nearby that has power and is close enough to wake up the panel. (It might be something that plugs into a wall outlet and even does networking over the power lines.) This would allow the valuable ability to push information to the panel.

The panel’s battery would of course die in time, so there would need to be a battery swap ability or if need be a means to charge with a temporary extension cord, a battery-powered charger or taking the panel off the wall.

An immediate market for these would be the doors of meeting rooms, so that they can show the schedule for the meeting room. Many hotels and convention centers have screens to do this now, but due to the need for power and other integration, these tend to be quite expensive, while ebook readers are now in the $100 range.

But they would also be useful around the home for 4th screen applications, displaying useful info. They could also be put near fridges or stoves to display recipes and family information. Obviously if you can put in a powered LCD display, that’s going to be able to do more, but without the power constraint more people might use it. They do need to be lit by external light, of course, but also are visible in bright sun in a way that lcds are not. And a product like this might well start eating into the retail digital signage market — anybody know what the price points are these days in that market?

passive updating signage

The company, Gyricon LLC, was spun out of Xerox PARC to commercialize electric paper in the ways you describe. The product line included battery-powered portable store signage that would check in periodically to update prices, specials, etc. I think it was designed for the batteries to last around 3 months. For a combination of reasons, the company was not successful.

That doesn't mean that the commercial, promotional, and informative signage idea couldn't or shouldn't be tried again. But something about the cost structure needs to have changed from the mid-2000s.

This Wikipedia article describes the differences among technologies for electric paper.

If the major cost is an active backplane, then some applications might get away without one. I don't know about electrophoretic, but the gyricon technology allows an image to be written by applying an electrostatic voltage from the front. In theory you could sweep a "magic wand" across the surface to paint a new image. Then, company signage could be updated as part of guards' rounds, or routine admin duties. The refrigerator calendar gets updated, or swapped out with the list of daily chores or whatever, by having Junior swipe the wand across the screen. (If the chores are onerous, he might really swipe the wand.)

Guard's rounds

While it is easier for a guard to swipe over a display than to replace a piece of paper, I think one of the goals here is to avoid needing that manual change. The sign would not just update once a day, but ideally more often (at least during the day) or as I noted, respond to an EM wakeup pulse with its ID (the way RFIDs can without power but without the need to retransmit.) Another idea would be to run off low-level inductive power which also could signal the need for updates.

But yes, this was always one of the big marketing plans for e-paper. I just note that the book readers are pretty close to having all you need, and they are being mass produced, which means very different price points. A sign needs even less.

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