What makes e-paper the best display technology for Makers?

Scott Soong
What makes e-paper the best display technology for Makers?
Scott Soong of Pervasive Displays discusses how e-paper technology is contributing to the world of makers rather than just major companies enabling makers to utilise its advantages in projects based around Raspberry Pi and other single board computers.

Truly world-changing technology has never been more accessible to hobbyists and makers. Desktop 3D printers and other forms of additive manufacturing can be bought for just a few hundred euros or dollars, enabling people to build new and exciting objects. If you can imagine it, you can create it.

Visualisation is an important part of creativity, but it is also an integral part of the user experience. Being able to hold an object that had previously existed only as a model on a screen is an incredibly effective way of understanding and advancing ideas.

The Maker Movement may have started with home crafts, but it has evolved rapidly. When we talk about Makers today, it is often in the context of applications and devices that have electronics at their heart. It soon became apparent that the integrated circuit would revolutionise every aspect of modern life when it first emerged over 60 years ago. Now, the power of integrated technology isn’t just available to large companies who manufacture products in the hundreds of thousands. It has been adapted to fuel the Maker Movement, providing millions of enthusiasts with access to vast amounts of processing power in a range of formats, often costing less than $5 for what is essentially a computer on a board.

The popularity of single-board computer modules like Raspberry Pi has grown rapidly in recent years. They successfully combine hardware and software in a format that is easy to use, extensible and powerful. With community support they provide Makers with the building blocks required to create applications that most large commercial companies would never consider developing. This, in turn, has resulted in the growing number of crowd-funded projects that cover a wide range of application areas. The self-perpetuating nature of the Maker Movement ensures it will continue to evolve as new technologies become available. Currently the Internet of Things (IoT) provides the backdrop for many Maker projects, creating demand for modules that offer the ability to add or exploit wired and wireless connectivity like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee. As these applications evolve, Makers will search out new functionality that can be added to devices.

While internet connectivity may be almost mandatory, for many applications the user will remain central to the entire application. Part of the appeal of making something yourself is being able to interact with it directly. This is as true for a 3D printed musical instrument as it is for an automatic plant watering device (which is a popular application for Makers). Adding a user interface to a computer module brings people and technology closer together, providing an opportunity to fully exploit the available power.

By adding a simple display to a computer module, it’s possible to make an intelligent device that is small enough to embed into everyday household objects, turning the mundane into the amazing. For example, a table lamp could become a way to check the weather conditions at your favourite holiday spot, or a conventional doorbell could be upgraded to a smart display that lets visitors know you’re on the way to the door. Chairs could tell you where you’re sitting at a dinner party, while kitchen cabinets could let you know you’re low on sugar, or the temperature inside the oven. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination, and perhaps power.

While great leaps have been made in reducing the active power of highly integrated circuits, conventional display technology is still characterised by the power it draws. The most pervasive display technology used in small and portable applications is Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), a technology that relies on frequent screen refreshes and constant drive to create a persistent image. These displays often include an LED backlight, but even without this they can be too power-hungry for many applications. In battery-powered (or even self-powered) applications, an LCD can quickly drain the available power, even if the information on the screen only changes infrequently.

This makes it impossible to use an LCD in many IoT applications, which are often power-constrained by nature, and this is why e-paper is the best display technology for Makers. Its unique features make it ideal for power-constrained devices that simply need to provide some form of visual user feedback. Perhaps the key feature of e-paper is that the screen retains its contents even when there is no power applied. It achieves this through being bistable, which simply means that each pixel will stay in whatever state it was in when power was removed. This is only possible with e-paper; displays based on LCD technology cannot do this. Of course, the fact that e-paper requires a fraction of the power an LCD would need to update only reinforces its suitability for Makers.

Makers are changing the world, one application at a time. And with its unique features, e-paper is the perfect complementary technology for Makers, something Pervasive Displays is eager to support through the growing number of kits now available. 

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