Plastic Logic Proposes a Futuristic Kind of Paper

For all the guilt-tripping about dead trees, we still can't live without paper. But some day, we may be able to use flexible sheets of digital ink instead.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

For all the guilt-tripping about dead trees, we still can’t live without paper. But some day, we may be able to use flexible sheets of digital ink instead.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, U.K.-based Plastic Logic demonstrated an E-Ink “tablet” dubbed the PaperTab, which was little more than a thick, floppy sheet of plastic, connected to a high-end Core processor from Intel. Each of these sheets can accept touch input, and can share data when in contact with one another. Think of it like paper with benefits.

In one demonstration, a single sheet contained an e-mail, while another sheet was blank. Tapping the blank sheet against the e-mail transferred the message to the other sheet. In another demo, a map was extended across two sheets of the digital paper by placing them side-by-side. Certain functions, such as bookmarking or moving to the next page, could be accomplished by bending the display at its edges.

PLpapertabstack

Jared Newman / TIME.com

Why would any of this be useful in the real world? I get the sense that Plastic Logic is still figuring that out. But a few ideas start to bubble forth: You might, for instance, want to spread out a bunch of documents on your desk for easy viewing, or throw some sheets in your backpack like a magazine, without worrying about damage. I could imagine sending an article to a sheet, then doing some old-school editing with a stylus.

Although Plastic Logic developed the technology, it collaborated with Queen’s University in Ontario on the interface and implementation, and with Intel for the processors. Roel Vertegaal, a professor at Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab, said he expects the sheets to become a product in about five years. The idea is for them to become cheap enough that the average consumer could own up to a dozen sheets.

If the name Plastic Logic sounds familiar, you might recall that the company tried to get into the e-reader market a couple years ago with the Que. Like several other hopeful contenders, Plastic Logic got priced out of the market by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the Que became vaporware.

PLpapertabback

Jared Newman / TIME.com

Now, the company’s looking to license its e-paper technology to other companies in hopes of creating the paper of the future. The point of the prototypes is to prove that the technology exists, and to encourage the industry to work on components that can fit within an ultra-thin, flexible display.

As far as prototypes go, these were in a very early stage. The processors and power supplies for the sheets were actually stashed under a table and connected by wire. To communicate, the sheets used a centralized computer, which mapped each of their physical coordinates over Wi-Fi. It’ll take a lot of work to embed all the necessary components into the actual sheets.

In other words, this is one of those pie-in-the-sky CES demos that shows you what could be possible in the next five years or so, but only if everything pans out just right. In the meantime, let the mere thought of digital paper put your dead-tree guilt at ease.

MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete coverage of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show

1 comments
PaulDirks
PaulDirks

What this world needs is a full size pad that you can fold in half in order to fit in your pocket. Is that too much to ask?