Last November, Amazon unveiled a new electronic book reader whose display incorporates digital ink technology and looks remarkably like paper. Michael McCreary of E-Ink Corporation hopes that consumers will finally give up the dead-tree version of books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, Amazon.com unveiled a new electronic reader device called the Kindle. It's the size of a thin paperback, it weighs ten ounces and it can hold thousands of books. To make the device a must-have, Amazon will offer more than 80,000 electronic books, as well as subscriptions to dozens of newspapers, magazines and even blogs at fairly low prices.
Now, this isn't the first E-reader device, but one feature Amazon hopes will set the Kindle apart is its use of so-called E-Ink technology. This, they say, will finally make reading digital text a pleasant experience. Unlike computer screens, E-Ink is not backlit. It looks more like actual paper.
Michael McCreary, E-Ink's vice president of research and advanced development, says the new display is a vast improvement over previous unsuccessful E-readers.
MICHAEL McCREARY: In the early days, in the late 1990s, it took about 200 volts or so [LAUGHS], much higher than your actual house current, to create an image. And they were very, very crude images. They were blue, and the images weren't particularly stable. Today the technology is very comparable to what you would see in a printed newspaper.
BOB GARFIELD: Permit me to ask three questions all at once. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How does it work?
MICHAEL McCREARY: The look is just like regular paper. Right now, it is rigid. It doesn't bend like regular paper. But within the next year so, it'll be thin and feel like regular paper as well. Of course, the difference is, unlike regular paper, you'll be able to change the image.
What we're talking about are real pigments, the same kind of pigments you have in ink or in wall paint. And even if you remove the batteries, that image is there for years.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me the technology behind it. How does it work?
MICHAEL McCREARY: The principle of the electronic paper is microscopic charged particles, in the primary case, black and white. And it's possible to move either the white to the front or the black to the front, so when you do that at a much smaller scale than you can actually see with your naked eye, what you end up with is something that looks exactly like paper.
And the displays that you have on your computer and TV have a light that's on 100 percent of the time. You're using power all the time, and if you take that computer outside, you can't read it in sunlight. And that's a major disadvantage compared to traditional paper, and that disadvantage is not there with electronic paper.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the criticisms of virtual paper is that it doesn't feel like a book or like paper. It’s, you know, it's plastic film, and it's cold and impersonal and digital.
MICHAEL McCREARY: I'm actually holding an electronic book in my hands right now. It has a leather cover. The book is maybe the size of a paperback in two dimensions, but it's maybe one-half or less the thickness of a paperback.
And I love the feeling of the leather cover. I love the look of this, like paper. This is basically a library book. I'll still have my hundred-year-old books in my library at home, but I don't carry those in my briefcase [LAUGHS] to read them when I go out on a business trip.
BOB GARFIELD: There seem to be some obvious ecological advantages - no trees killed and so forth. Is that real? What are the implications?
MICHAEL McCREARY: It's absolutely huge. It's been said that if all the newspapers in the United States switched to electronic papers and the forests stayed standing that we would meet the Kyoto Treaty requirements with those steps alone. So it's very big, especially for paper that's only read once.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, fine. I'm in an airplane. I have my E-book. I'm on page 567 of War and Peace and things are really getting exciting - Napoleon's on the run - and I run out of batteries. Whom do I kill?
MICHAEL McCREARY: [LAUGHING] Well, the chances of running out of batteries are very, very small because you can read thousands of pages on these E-books without having to recharge your batteries. And the book does not require power to maintain an image, only to change an image.
So the chances of finishing your paper book on the airplane [LAUGHS] and being frustrated because you don't have another book are probably much greater than [LAUGHS] the chances of actually running out of batteries on your electronic book.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mike. Thank you so much.
MICHAEL McCREARY: So good to talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael McCreary is vice president of research and advanced development for E-Ink.