An inventor ahead of his time

Publication Date: Wednesday Mar 24, 1999

An inventor ahead of his time

After 20 years, Nick Sheridon may finally find a market for his "electronic paper"

by Kimberley Lovato

Twenty years ago, a physicist named Nick Sheridon was hired by Xerox Corp. "to come up with a billion dollar business." And that's exactly what he may have done, though Xerox management didn't realize it at the time.

Working out of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Sheridon invented Gyricon, a flat, paper-like alternative to liquid-crystal display screens and cathode-ray tubes. The device, which Sheridon calls "electronic paper," is no thicker than a stack of seven pieces of paper and weighs only a few ounces. Made of a flexible, rubbery material, Gyricon is easier to read, uses less power and is more portable than the conventional displays.

Although pricing is a long way from being set, Sheridon estimates a sheet of Gyricon could go for just a few dollars. A scanning wand, which the Gyricon user would wield to transfer information from their personal computer to the Gyricon sheet, is expected to sell for about $100.

Sheridon speculates that, had the project been given the green light 20 years ago, Gyricon would have revolutionized the way we do business. "It would have displaced LCDs and several other applications, I'm sure," he says.

But Xerox wasn't in the display business, and the project was put on the back burner, where it sat until 6 1/2 years ago.

Originally, admits Sheridon, he wasn't thinking of his invention in terms of a paper-like application: He saw it as a new sort of computer monitor, replacing cathode-ray tubes. But the idea for electronic paper was always in the back of his mind, says Sheridon, and he believed it could be a huge success.

Eventually, Sheridon won approval to resurrect his invention, and now, two decades and 50 patents after he came up with the idea, an electronic paper prototype displaying the "Xerox PARC" logo sits on a small table in his office.

He won't speculate whether it still could eliminate LCDs, but the soft-spoken scientist says he is confident it will "create its own market."

"I felt it was important to come back to it," says Sheridon, who still believes the product has enormous potential. Sheridon sees his invention as capable of leading the charge toward a truly paperless office.

"The key advantage this has over regular paper is that it is reusable," says Sheridon. In fact, he estimates one Gyricon sheet can be used 4 million times, significantly reducing the amount of paper flowing through offices and making it an environmentally friendly product.

"We've come to realize that trees are not that renewable a resource," says Sheridon. "It takes a long time to grow a tree."

He also likens Gyricon to paper because of its legibility. "With regular paper, the brighter the light, the easier it is to read," he says. "The same is true of Gyricon."

And, unlike an LCD, a sheet of Gyricon doesn't have to be viewed head-on in order to read it. "It can be read from almost any angle," says Sheridon.

While computer display and sign technology may be key uses of Gyricon, Sheridon says it is the paper-like applications that Xerox is after. E-mail users, according to Sheridon, will be a key target.

"If (e-mail) is more than half of a page long, we send it to the printer," said Sheridon. "Everyone does this."

With a Gyricon, users instead will swipe the scanning wand over the rubbery sheet of Gyricon to download e-mail or other information from their personal computer. Once downloaded to the sheet, the image can be erased or replaced by a new image just as easily.

Here's how it works. The scanning wand, which is still in development, applies electric stimuli to millions of tiny plastic balls imbedded in oil-filled cavities in the Gyricon sheet. The stimuli causes the balls, each white on one side and a color on the other, to rotate to create words or images.

Don't expect to see electronic paper at the office supply store just yet. Sheridon expects it will take about three years to bring the first consumer product to market. However, the technology may be appearing as soon as 18 months from now on signs and billboards. Sheridon also sees a long-term application for Gyricon in the publishing and newspaper industries.

As with anything on the cutting edge in Silicon Valley, competitors are close on the heels of Gyricon, according to Sheridon. E Ink, which is teaming up with the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, and Kent Display Systems are both working on different approaches to creating electronic paper.

But Sheridon isn't worried. He says Gyricon, by its very nature, will offer a better opportunity for product improvement and capabilities than its competitors, which is why he chose to continue developing the technology.

"But, we'll just have to wait and see." He smiled.

This visionary, whose idea was born more than 20 years ago, was already thinking far into the future. 

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