Wednesday, October 17, 2007

E-paper History: An Interview with Nick Sheridon, Father of E-paper

In the 1970s, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) was a powerhouse of innovation. Many aspects the modern computer, namely the mouse, laser printer, Ethernet, GUI, computer-generated color graphics, as well as a number of important computer languages, were invented at PARC around that time. Yet another development, nearly lost among those important breakthroughs, was invented in 1974 by PARC employee Nicholas K. Sheridon. The Gyricon, a Greek term for rotating image, was to be new display technology for the Alto personal computer; eventually, it became the basis for modern e-paper technology.

Nearly 35 years later, TFOT sat down with Nick Sheridon to ask him about his historic invention.

In the late 60s and early 70s, Xerox PARC was developing and attempting to get Xerox management to appreciate the Alto personal computer; they never did. It was the world's first office and word-processing computer, but this remarkable machine had one serious drawback: the cathode-ray tube display it used—the best available—was not bright enough, and the contrast was not great. People that used the machine did so in a darkened room, with the lights turned off and the window shades drawn. Several of us scientists were asked to try to find a better display, hopefully one that could permit operation in a brightly lit ambient. I invented the Gyricon rotating-ball display and a display based on a physical phenomenon I called “electrocapillarity.” The electrocapillarity display worked by moving colored liquids against a white background. The rest of the group worked on electrophoretic displays (eventually dropped due to lifetime problems).

A piece of history: one of the first Gyricon material to be made, about 2 centimeters on a side from the 1974 era. The image was produced by placing an
A piece of history: one of the first pieces of Gyricon material to be made, about 2
centimeters on a side from the 1974 era. The imagewas produced by placing an "X" shaped electrode on the Gyricon sheet and applying a voltage. Normally, the Gyricon
does not save images for 30+ years, but a special procedure was used in this case
to save the image.

I codeveloped the Gyricon and electrocapillarity displays for about 18 months and finally decided the Gyricon would be easier to develop. Hoping to get back to the electrocapillary display, I delayed applying for patents until the early 90s. When my patent applications were laid open in Europe, a university group revived the work and changed the name to “electrowetting.” Electrowetting is widely studied and is considered a promising candidate for electronic paper. I published a paper on the Gyricon and made several presentations. Several patents were applied for. About this time, I met the Xerox head of corporate research in the PARC cafeteria. He complimented me on my display work but pointed out that Xerox was not in the display business. At this point, I realized the Alto was not going to be developed by Xerox. He strongly urged me to invent new printer technology to counter the erosion of the Xerox copier/printer market by the Japanese.

I stopped the Gyricon work and eventually invented a new electronic-printing technology based on ionography. This became a large program at Xerox, consuming perhaps $150 million; this number is hard to establish. We developed and were in early-manufacturing operations of the world's first multifunction desktop machine—printer, copier, input scanner, and fax—when this program was cancelled. This left me free to invent the concept of electronic paper.

Much has been written about the incredible myopia of Xerox executives of the time, so I won't go into that except to say that there were numerous other opportunities to enormously expand Xerox's business that were similarly fumbled. Xerox had enough money to create an incredible research lab with top-notch people, but Xerox management could not shake off the copier mentality.

Via TFOT. Read the complete interview here


Anonymous Xerox Solid Phaser Ink said...

interesting overview of the history of e-paper. You should write an article of what you think the future of e-paper is going to be!
I would love to read about it. I have read a lot of opinions of what people think the future is going to be and i would love to know your opinion.

There is a great overview on Computerworld actually. but your history or e-paper has been much more interesting than anything i have ever read and i think you should really write a post about the future.

Great post!

2:26 AM  

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