e-Ink Holdings is the company responsible for the technology found in some of the world’s most popular e-readers. If you have the Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook Simple Touch, Kobo Touch, or most Sony devices, they have an e-ink screen. We caught up with the Chief Marketing Officer of E Ink Holdings Inc, Sriram K. Peruvemba, for a great discussion on the current state of affairs with their company and the e-reader sphere.
E-ink is doing record financial numbers due to the rising success of the screens used in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Sony e-Readers. As a company how are you adjusting to the added income?
We are in the consumer markets primarily both with our FFS LCDs used in Tablet devices as well as our ePaper displays used in eReaders, such as the ones you mentioned. In the consumer world, we are required to constantly innovate and provide new technologies and features pretty much every year and this involves a lot of investment. In addition, predicting product volumes in the consumer space is non-trivial, so our factories have to flex its capacity to cater to peak months when the volume could be as much as 4x above average. Building factories to cater to cyclical demand has been a major area of investment for us. In a nutshell, our investments have gone into research, design, and manufacturing primarily, and we have also invested in all other areas of business from office buildings to new enterprise software systems. Most of our investment has been in human resources, meaning we added a number of scientists and engineers to various groups. In the area of manufacturing, apart from a lot of hires, we also invested in infrastructure.
E-Ink Triton had a ton of potential but we have yet to see a major company releasing a product. Of course we have Hanvon with their model and they made a deal with Ectaco to re brand it as the Jetbook color, why hasn’t it caught on yet?
E Ink Triton meets the needs of applications such as eTextbooks and eNewspapers and we have seen customers such as Jinke, Hanvon, Ectaco publicly announce products using our technology. Other customers are also working on designs that are not announced yet. This is both in the area of ePublishing applications as well as in areas such as signage. Triton does not support full motion video, we can only do animation at this point hence other mobile devices such as tablets use our FFS technology based LCD rather than our Triton displays. We are confident that Triton and further generations of color ePaper will play a significant role in the display space. What is interesting about Triton is that when you increase the pixel size the color is much more saturated and the display meets almost all color needs in various applications but the increased pixel size renders the display more suitable for viewing from 6 feet away (signs) than from 6″ away (eReaders). All the same, when the Triton eReader in Hanvon, Ectaco device is compared in a outdoor, high ambient setting alongside any tablet or laptop, the effect is remarkable.
What are some of the hurdles you have to overcome to offer companies who want to use Triton the kind of end costs found in e-ink pearl?
Since Triton uses the same chemistry as Pearl, the cost of the base materials are not different, the color filter does cost extra, but as a percentage of the cost of the end device, the cost of the CFA is not as significant. The color ePaper devices will cost more than the monochrome devices not mainly due to the display but due to other features that can be enabled in the software and UI that were not possible in case of the monochrome device. We are confident that our entire eco-system (the display is probably one of about 100 sub components in a eReader as you know) will work towards finding competitive cost structures to make the Triton based devices suitable for consumer applications. And yes, we want it to happen sooner, our customers such as Ectaco and Hanvon are leading the way in the eReader space.
What is in development right now. Things from e-ink has been rather quiet lately, are you doing something new?
We have actually been busier the past two years than ever before. We have alots of projects in the pipline. We typically release a major platform once every 18 –24 months and in between we release a number of smaller innovations.
Pearl went into production last year.
Triton went into production this year.
In the meanwhile we have worked with our semiconductor partners to transform dedicated display controllers plus memory into System-On-Chip products. This resulted in increased speed and performance of our existing products (See Bookeen video using E Ink/TI jointly developed SOC as well as the E Ink/ Freescale joint collaboration SOC in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24srQXX81Oc )
At the same time the SOC partners – Freeescale, TI, Marvel, Epson, Samsung found ways to reduce the overall cost, which benefitted our end customers. In each case E Ink has a joint development agreement with the respective semiconductor company that allows for collaborative design activity.
Another area where we made great progress during 2011 was in the area of touchscreens. Last year, the majority of E Ink displays on eReaders had no touch screen. This year almost all of them do. This required a lot of close coordination and work with touchscreen companies as well as our end customers. You will notice that, unlike in the case of LCD, when you use the touch screen on an E Ink display, chances of accidentally pressing an adjoining key or button is minimized. You feel like you are touching the actual image rather than a surface high above the image.
When we first started, our designs had a power management circuit that had about 40 discrete components – E Ink designed, we have worked with Maxim and TI to create PMIC chips that replace those 40 components and increase reliability, reduce a lot of board space and take out more than 50% of the cost. A huge benefit for the end customers
A not so well known fact is that E Ink also makes software that accompanies our product – its a suite of software options- and our customers have recently used these features to enable faster page turns among others. If you look at the top three benefits offered by a number of eReader customers of ours (see http://www.barnesandnoble.com/p/nook-simple-touch-barnes-noble/1102344735), all of these are due to the display. This is a fairly large undertaking within E Ink.
You’ve no doubt noticed that we have been showing demos of flexible displays for the past 2-3 years and that we are working with nearly a dozen companies to get this to market (Our publicly announced partners include Epson, Sony, Plastic Logic, HP, Flextech, LG Display, Samsung). Recently our customer Plastic Logic launched a fully functional device in the Russian market (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAv4XFiPDB4&feature=player_embedded#! And I had the chance to toss it around recently, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvCS4v8XMYQ ) This project has been a multi-year effort at E Ink.
In the area of segmented or what we call SURF displays, we’ve made great progress. We’ve designed dozens of new products from watches to indoor and outdoor signs, secondary displays on mobile phones, battery and memory indicators etc. Our customers Neolux and Motion Display both delivered dozens and dozens of new products to end customers using our product line that we refer to as Ink-In-Motion. These are essentially used in retail signage applications. If you need more details about the SURF products, let us know, we can even ship a few samples to you.
With our matrix displays, we have launched into non-publishing applications in partnership with a company named Pervasive Displays (spun out from ChiMei/ChiLin) and created several designs for industrial, medical and consumer applications. We have already won business using these designs and the products are in mass production. See http://www.pervasivedisplay.com/home
We had been working with Ricoh for a number of years to create and launch this unique design called eQuill see: http://www.ricoh-ews.com/ricoh-equill . The product just launched and we are excited about the prospects.
Finally, in partnership with Epson, we have developed a 300 dpi display (current shipping 6″ eReader displays are 167 dpi) that looks better than ordinary paper. Epson makes a semiconductor chip that drives our high res display. We are in the process of working with customers in various sub market segments to get these designed into actual products. If you are at CES, we can show this display to you.
There are many other promising technologies being worked on and I will let you know when I am able.
What is your relationship with Freescale, since many companies using your e-ink screens use Freescale processors to power their devices?
We have a Joint Development Agreement (JDA) with Freescale where we license technology, patents and have a collaborative effort to develop new products. We think Freescale has done a fantastic job with their new SOC products, which enables new features on the E Ink Pearl and Triton displays.
Are you guys coming to CES? If so, what will you be showing off?
We are but we typically don’t exhibit at CES. We will have several E Ink display based devices being exhibited by our customers and industry partners.
I was speaking with a e-ink Representative at the 1st annual e-Readers Conference in San Francisco a few months ago and they mentioned e-ink clothing, that would change color, what news do you have on that front?
This was a research project we worked on with a government customer and therefore samples are not available to send. As such, the pruduct is not yet commercialized though there is market interest.
Mirasol recently released their first color e-reader in South Korean with Kyobo, how is your company responding to that new technology and what do you think about it?
We admire their technology, it’s quite fascinating. They have been working on this for a long time, we know how hard it is to take product from lab to fab, we wish them the very best.
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and Verge.