October 17, 2007

The Future of Paper

Posted in books, hardware, printing, technology at 10:49 pm by India

rolled paper

I realized the need for e-paper in 1989. At Xerox PARC, we had long predicted the advent of the paperless office, with the widespread adoption of the personal computer we pioneered. The paperless office never happened. Instead, the personal computer caused more paper to be consumed. I realized that most of the paper consumption was caused by a difference in comfort level between reading documents on paper and reading them on the CRT screen. Any document over a half page in length was likely to be printed, subsequently read, and discarded within a day. There was a need for a paper-like electronic display—e-paper! It needed to have as many paper properties as possible, because ink on paper is the “perfect display.” Subsequently, I realized that the Gyricon display, which I had invented in the early 70s, was a good candidate for use as e-paper.
(Nick Sheridon, “Father of E-paper,” interviewed at The Future of Things)

I confess that I print nearly everything I have to read for my job, even though I spend all day (and night, obviously) reading text—much of it far longer than half a page—from a computer screen. I try to justify this by saying that I need to be able to mark things up, and that I don’t print anything at home. (Because I can’t. Because my inkjet got gummed up and I’m tired of fixing it.) But I do often e-mail PDFs to myself and print them at the office. Have you ever tried to cook from a recipe on your laptop screen? It sucks, especially if you have limited counter space.

At least I usually print on both sides.

I like to tell people that the holy grail of e-paper will be embodied as a cylindrical tube, about 1 centimeter in diameter and 15 to 20 centimeters long, that a person can comfortably carry in his or her pocket. The tube will contain a tightly rolled sheet of e-paper that can be spooled out of a slit in the tube as a flat sheet, for reading, and stored again at the touch of a button. Information will be downloaded—there will be simple user interface—from an overhead satellite, a cell phone network, or an internal memory chip. This document reader will be used for e-mail, the Internet, books downloaded from a global digital library that is currently under construction, technical manuals, newspapers (perhaps in larger format), magazines, and so forth, anywhere on the planet. It will cost less than $100, and nearly everyone will have one!

Do you think this is really going to happen? Are people one day going to look back and say, “Can you believe they used to grind up trees to put their text on?!?” I’m hardly a Luddite, but I find it difficult to imagine this. Inorganic paper, of course—we have that now, I’m sure*—but e-paper? You would have to be able to write on the stuff, too, in order for it to become ubiquitous, no? And you would have to be able to trust that your paper wouldn’t crash and lose all your text. The text would all be stored in a global digital library? Hello, privacy nightmare! Also, DRM, no doubt. You might still need paper, or something as versatile as paper, for short-term text storage, or for anything you want to record but keep to yourself.

Am I just superbad at imagining things?

Read more about what may be in store at The Future of Things. Via Zina Saunders.

* Too lazy to look it up.

Photo: rolled paper by Maproom Systems / Brett Schutzman; some rights reserved.


  1. Rose said,

    I’m reading 100 pages of a book that I had sent to me as a .pdf and which I had F. print out for me at work. (Taking a break!) I don’t know what qualities I would need in something that would make it work well for me as e-paper. I’m trying to get my laptop to become a place that I’m comfortable doing more work, so that perhaps I could have open a .pdf and a text file at the same time, and then they’d be stored in the same folder, perhaps.

    I had a professor explain to me recently that one thing that’s changed over the last 15-20 years in academia is that you don’t need to worry so much about how to store paper copies of articles, because “you can always just print out another copy if you need to read it again”.

    We shall see how things progress. I will be old and cranky with you in any case, I promise.

  2. Erin said,

    Okay, I admit I’m really looking forward to e-paper, but not in a tube! Jeez, it would never lie flat, I don’t know what universe’s physics he’s smoking.

    I want something that looks like a book, but when you turn the pages, they are always just one page ahead of you. And when you get to the end, you flip it and go back the other way! And with any luck by the time we get that DRM will be a faint bad memory, like McCarthyism, and everyone will have an anonymous router/storage.

    A girl can dream …

  3. India Amos said,

    Rose—you remind me of another thing: If you’ve got all your “books” stored in one single paperless interface, what do you do when you want to, say, have two books open in front of you at the same time? For comparison, say? Do you have to have two reader gadgets, or can you unfold/unroll the screen farther and show two texts side by side?

  4. Zaid said,

    Ok so I’m reading about 400 – 600 pages a week for my reading assignments from all my classes. And at this point, it has become impossible for me to even think about printing so many copies. I’ve already tried minimizing the effect by printing on both sides, but that still leaves out quite a lot to be printed.

    But one thing this semester that has worked out tremendously for me is a PDF reader I’ve been using that allows me to interact with the text more efficiently (isn’t it all about our interaction with things, after all?!?!?). Not only can I highlight my documents now, I can also underline, strikeout, add extra snippets of side notes, etc.

    Sure, the real interaction & experience of having material in my hands is never going to be replaced. But I’ve come to trust & appreciate this method of approaching & tackling my readings!!!

    So far, so good!


    P.S.: “Skim” is the name of the PDF reader that I alluded to at the beginning & is unfortunately only available for OS X at this time.

    P.P.S.: Sorry! This post doesn’t really come down the point & respond according the actual topic (e – paper), but I thought I’d add this until we get to that point!!!

  5. abarclay12 said,

    Good question. When I write, I need to print it out to see what it looks like on the page, so I can make changes and mark it up. Maybe that’s just (a bad?) habit, but I don’t know because reading for a lengthy time on a computer screen starts to wear my eyeballs out, and it makes me feel like things are final. some people have speculated that eventually newspapers, magazines, novels, etc. will only be online so that there’s really no more paper at least in an entertainment sense. That freaks me out because I like to hold books, mags, etc. Anyhow, very interesting question on your blog today.

  6. When there is e-paper, there can also still be paper-paper. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Like some people still use and prefer vinyl albums and cassettes and CDs even though there are also MP3s and iPods, and like I still burn mix tapes although now I do it on CDs.

    Some things would be better on e-paper, like proofs and directions that you print and use once, then throw away. Other things will be better on paper-paper, like private notes and autographs and lipstick kisses.

    I expect that e-paper will unroll from its tube and lie flat — they’ll make that work, they’re smart. :)

    You’ll also be able to mark on it, and have those marks stored. The iPhone interface is just a step from that, right? That will be excellent for marking up proofs, or for getting a signature on a contract and saving it automatically to some centralized data storage space.

  7. India Amos said,

    Zaid—I’ve heard of that Skim program, and even downloaded it, but I keep forgetting to try using it. It’s good to know that it’s working for you. Perhaps today . . .

    abarclay12—I find it puzzling that newspapers continue to print paper versions. It seems like such a bad format for news, which changes every minute. But I guess if there were no paper versions, people like my mom wouldn’t be able to read them, and she’s been a loyal New York Times subscriber since college. She uses a computer every day, but for word processing and e-mail only; she’s still touch-and-go with that whole crazy Web thing.

    Cindy–Of course, if you were in charge of making the e-paper, I would trust that it would work out brilliantly. Because, as we know, even your mistakes are brilliant. (Or maybe especially your mistakes?) I just worry, because sometimes the smartest technology is not what makes it to the top of the pile. Take Windows, for instance . . .

  8. India, you are completely right that if Microsoft is in charge of e-paper, it will be terrible. Let’s hope someone else gets there first, and isn’t crushed by the Windows steamroller.

  9. Jedd said,

    To paraphrase old Mark Twain, reports of the death of paper are greatly exaggerated. The prediction keeps coming around; it’s comes in cycles and has been bandied about for decades.

    Will e-paper arrive? Sure, eventually. Perhaps in a few years, but more likely decades, before it’s really useful.

    What would a useful sheet of e-paper look like? Maybe the thickness of a bed sheet, and taking up as much space. You should be able to crumple it up or fold it just like real paper without damaging it. At the touch of a button, it should become rigid for writing. Obviously, these design requirements are extreme. But for e-paper to gain traction, it has to be better, tougher, and more extraordinary than real paper.

    How about a piece of e-paper that replaces a blackboard? I think it may be a while before giant pieces of e-paper like that become cheap enough for every classroom. And we haven’t even gotten into color e-paper yet. Most current technology is B&W only, and not very robust yet.

  10. India Amos said,

    How about a piece of e-paper that replaces a blackboard? I think it may be a while before giant pieces of e-paper like that become cheap enough for every classroom.

    Oooh, yes. The world needs better digital blackboards. Or, at least, it needs better ones than the system they use at the Alliance Française in NYC, which the teachers mostly have the hang of but that the students were perpetually wrestling with. I think it was a Microsoft thing. (Duh.)

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