Saturday, September 20, 2008

Esquire Magazine's E-Ink Cover

First, the magazine cover, in two of the states it cycles through:

There's a car ad on the opposite side of the cover. I'm guessing that's what funded the whole thing. It's really unimpressive, though, and doesn't look as good as the cover; it just highlights parts of the wheels and sections of the body to give a vague impression of motion.

Ripping open the cover is easy, with a little care, and from there's it's just a matter of carefully peeling off some clear tape and pulling the panels free of their glue without bending them too badly or tearing one of the ribbon cables.

The apparatus, consisting of two panels and a circuit/battery board, and aforementioned ribbon cables:

The two panels detached. Note that unlike an LCD, even with the power removed the panel stays in the last state that it was set to.

No, I didn't break it... if I reattach the ribbon cables, the panels start animating again.

The colored sheets that overlay the panels, to give the display some color:

So, overall, the E-Ink thing is a bit of a gimmick; if they had just wanted to make the thing eye-catching, they probably could have done it cheaper by lighting up parts of the cover using some tiny LEDs. It isn't like the whole magazine came on an E-Ink screen and you could read the whole thing on it. That would have impressed me.

Can it be hacked? Well, there's not really very much here. The panels aren't true E-Ink the way the Kindle is; it isn't dot-addressable. It is like a calculator LCD, containing a series of pre-printed regions that can light up or go dark. So probably the best you could do to hack it is to drive the different segments in a different order, faster of slower. Someone could make it sound-responsive. But you can only activate and deactivate the existing segments; you couldn't, for example, rewire it to turn on and off individual characters, and certainly can't draw your own characters or display some other kind of picture. A bit disappointing as far as hacking potential goes. I'm willing to be proven wrong, though -- people are endlessly inventive!


Eschaton said...

Actually, you could hack it to be dot-addressable, it would just be a much bigger effort than hacking the segments to do something different.

You'd just have to (1) figure out how to get apart the e-paper without destroying it, (2) figure out the right way to induce the balls making up the e-paper to flip, and (3) create a pixel grid using that information.

It could be done, it's just a bunch more work and not all of the information about how to do so may be public. (That said, it's probably derivable from the hardware.)

Paul R. Potts said...

Thanks for the comment, Eschaton. I think it most likely that the conductive grid that controls the pixels would have to be put in during the manufacturing process (maybe while the balls are still in some kind of solution or powder form?) Someone more dedicated than I am could try to retrofit it after the fact, I just don't think the chances of getting a successful and clean-looking image are very high.

I took the panel and examined it under a stereo microscope while it was changing and while it was frozen in light and dark states, and also halfway in between. "Halfway in between" means that about half the balls have flipped. It's interesting to see how many "stuck" or unresponsive balls there are.