Reflective display technology has been around for 20 years or more, heavily led by E-Ink.
A start-up that comes out of the R&D labs of Oxford University in England – called Bodle Technologies – is just beginning to make the shift from development to commercialization on a display product that is kinda sorta like E-Ink, but done differently.
Bodle takes the same basic approach of reflecting light from other sources – like sunlight or room lighting – to show images, instead of using back or direct lighting like LCDs or LEDs. Unlike E-Ink, Bodle’s tech is not based on using electricity to move microcapsules of ink around a display. It’s done differently, using layers.
I spoke with co-founder and CEO Peiman Hosseini, who in our discussion does a nice job of explaining the technology and how it works. The end result is a display surface that supports precise colors and can do full-motion video.
One of the things I found interesting in our chat is how manufacturing can be done using legacy technologies, like the equipment used to make read/write DVDs. So the speed to market and costs are not the same as having to fund and build brand new manufacturing capability.
Electronic Shelf Labels are the initial target market for Bodle, but the company also sees a future in larger public information displays, where access to power is problematic.
So Peiman, pleasure to meet you virtually at least. We’ve not met in person and I’m almost completely unfamiliar with Bodle Technologies. So the best way to start is, can you give me a rundown of what your company does and how they got started?
Peiman: Yeah, sure. So Bodle really started as a spinoff at the University of Oxford in the UK. While I was doing my postdoctoral research there at the Materials department, we found this interesting optical effect, which in short is essentially a way to generate color using interference. You can think of it a little like the butterfly wings, where wings don’t really have those gorgeous colors, it’s really the structure and really the way light interacts with the structure that generates its color. So what we found out was that we could create gorgeous colors and use a much simpler way, so much more straightforward technique to deposit the spin using vacuum techniques. And then between these sort of different layers, we would add a special material that’s known as a phase change material.
The interesting part about this material is that it can change its optical properties, and it can modulate the light that’s reflected off the surface. So, essentially, we generate a technology that can be applied to a surface and then zap it with some energy, you know, an electrical pulse essentially, and the optical appearance of that surface will change. So, that was the whole idea behind this paper. And we published it in 2014. It was a very interesting and non-trivial optical effect that we discovered and once we published the paper, we immediately thought what we can do with it, you know, what would be something you could do with this technology? And that essentially led to a Bodle.
We found that Bodle about a year after the paper was published. So, end of 2015, early 2016. And then the company slowly grew over time. We raised quite a few million pounds from the UK Oxford VC area, and we just reached a point where we essentially are starting to move away from an R&D type of project into a genuine company, looking at products and looking at customers, looking essentially at what we can do with this new technology.
And you recently took over as CEO, right, you had been one of the co-founders and Chief Technology Officer?
Peiman: Exactly. So, as I said, I was one of the founders and the founding CTO, and I have been the CTO for four and a half years essentially. And more recently, we had reorganization of the company tackling the COVID issue and so on. So essentially, I moved to a CEO position now, and I’m looking forward to making a more commercial effort towards the company.
I am definitely not an alumnus of Oxford University – they probably wouldn’t even let me on the campus – but I understand the base idea of what you’re describing. How would you distinguish this from what I’m more familiar with, which would be E-ink or electronic ink?
Peiman: Yeah. So, in e-ink technology, you have these particular ink balls, if you want to call it that, which probably move around into this special medium. And so essentially the technology is about applying an electric field, moving these balls in and out of the vision of the reader and generating color. It’s very, very good technology for black and white. I own a Kindle, you know, it has been extremely successful in creating this sort of reflective display ecosystem. So the Kindle being the best, I would say, example out there. And really what they’re doing with their technologies is moving these inks, these little balls of things around and it has some some pros and some cons. So you know, there are some good things about it and some bad things about it like every technology.
What we are doing is very different. Our technology doesn’t really move anything anywhere. So we essentially have, as I said, this sort of special material that really can change the optical appearance of a surface. So instead of having a surface that you’re generating by moving around these ink, you are changing the color of the actual surface by changing its optical properties. So it’s a way that we also use to generate colors. You know, if you, for example, are thinking about having a nice beautiful red, what you would do with e-ink is you are essentially working on your inks, you’re creating a new type of red ink, and then you use ink to kind of generate the color and then you apply your electric fields to that ink moving up and down. So what we do is very, very different because in essence, all our pixels and all our corals are the same. The real difference between them is just the thicknesses of the layers that we put on top of each other, so if we have a slightly thicker or slightly thinner layer, we can generate, say, a blue collar or a red collar.
So essentially making the whole thing gets a little bit simpler in a way that the structure itself is always the same. And really, the differences between these colors are the various thicknesses of the layer. And that’s only possible because we are, as I said, working with interference of light. So the materials that we are using don’t really have any special color. So if you take these materials, and you look at them in the bulk form, they’re either gray or transparent, and don’t really look like anything. But if you put them in a certain layer on top of each other with very specific thicknesses, then they become red or a very gorgeous yellow or very gorgeous blue and so on. So that’s, I think, it’s a very different technology but the idea in the end is the same.
Is it ink-based as well?
Peiman: No, it’s not. We call it a Solid State Reflective Display, because the materials that are involved are kind of solid and sturdy materials.
And the market for this appears to be similar to what e-ink could be going after. What I saw on your website was electronic shelf labels, public information displays, the back-faces potentially on personal devices, that sort of thing but again it’s a different way of doing it, right?
Peiman: Yeah, it’s a different way of doing it. So, if you think about the first e-ink Kindle, the first product came out in 2007 together with the very first iPhone and and really you know, as of today you can buy these products and they evolved over time, but still there is really a need for in the market for something that is a little bit more than just reading books. Because, you know, black and white works well for books but you want to read, say a magazine or you want to be able to surf the web, or read your emails, and do all sorts of things on a reflective type of display. So everyone who’s working on reflective displays is really trying to expand that market beyond just reading books.
You know, everybody wants to get into the next generation products. And e-ink has been around for a very long time and there’s still trying and still making progress today. We are a very new technology and a very new concept, but we are able to do the same. And, as I said there are some fundamental differences between the two technologies but I think everybody agrees that if you can generate color, if you can have a display that is reflective, that can switch with video rate characteristics, then there is a huge market.
I think it’s estimated that the current market is somewhere around just shy of a billion dollar. But if you add these abilities like color and the video rate, the market jumps up to $5 billion in a few years. And I think that’s kind of easy to understand because you think about when you go to a store and buy the next generation Kindle or whatever that can show you different colors, it’s video capable and still you don’t have to charge it every day. I think it could be something that people want to buy and that’s really what our company enables.
I don’t want to make this about e-ink versus your technology at all, but it’s what I’m familiar with and what listeners are probably most familiar with, but with e-ink, they went from monochrome to starting to support a base number of colors, very limited range and then I have seen demos, I believe that SID display week of e-ink doing video or a very variation on video, kind of low frame rate, low resolution motion.
You’ve mentioned video, what is your technology capable of doing, kind of doing something that equates to an LCD at, you know, 30 frames a second or 60 frames a second?
Peiman: Yeah, so the technology that we’re developing essentially has an incredibly quick transition. So one of the strengths of the technology is that, because it’s a solid material that is transitioning between different phases, you’re not really moving anything around. So the speed at which you can refresh the pixel is extremely fast, so video rate is definitely something that you can do. Obviously, as for every bi-stable display technology, and for those of you guys who don’t know what bi-stable means, it means that if I unplug the display, the last picture that I was showing will stay there, so our Technology is just like that, like bi-stable. Something that’s bi-stable naturally will consume more power if you’re trying to refresh the image, because obviously just from a physics point of view, you don’t need to apply energy for the image to stay there, you will need to apply a little bit more energy when you want to change it. Obviously if you want to show videos and you want to show continuous videos, the power consumption will go up.
But the idea is not just about showing videos, because everybody thinks you want to watch YouTube videos, and you want to watch it continuously. Sure, that’s one application but another one is simply user interface responsiveness. So if you have something that you’re scrolling, for example, you want to see a nice and fluid type of scrolling movement. If you’re opening your emails, you want to see something that opens up without flashing your eyes with some picture or without you really noticing that it’s refreshing.
So that is also something that you can achieve with a video capable technology. And that’s something that generates other market opportunities on handheld devices that is just beyond just a YouTube video that you want to watch. So, you know, what we think is that video is important for videos, obviously. And it’s also important to enable other types of devices and applications, but otherwise, they are simply not there today. So you don’t have a sort of reflective type of display when you have a nice and smooth scrolling, for example, and that’s partially because of video issues with these technologies.
Yeah, certainly when I’ve seen electronic ink displays and when you see whatever the image or the text be refreshed, it kind of goes haywire for a split second at least, the screen goes kinda crazy, and then it locks into the next visual. And you’re saying that doesn’t happen?
Peiman: No, with our technology that doesn’t happen. That’s because we use techniques like random access capability, which means you can address one pixel without having to worry about affecting the neighboring pixels.
With that sort of capability, you don’t have the flashing behavior that you have with electronic papers type of applications. But, you know, it’s really about the application. If you just want to read a book, if you’re sort of flipping the page and it has to flash for half a second, that’s normal. But if you want to do more things and you want to do next generation things, then that might be an issue.
One of the things that struck me as quite interesting were some of the visuals on your website, one in particular for, I guess, a commuter rail service or something where you had real-time train information and station information on glass.
You know, I’ve written a little bit about companies that are doing mesh-LED displays that would overlay glass, or LED and film that would apply to glass or be inside of glass, but it tends to be low resolution, not the sort of thing that’s readable and would be able to give you arrivals and departures times and that sort of thing. This looks like, you know, a fully readable application, that could update pretty much on the fly. Could you describe what that’s all about?
Peiman: Yeah, so that’s why when we were trying to develop the technology, we were also thinking about what will be a nice application for this specific pros of our technology and one thing is because our pixels are so thin in our backlinks and the electronics that go behind these pixels. It’s so simple, you can apply those sorts of displays on pretty much any substance. And you know, every display is either made of glass right or you build the display on top of glass. And this sort of reflective appearance, capability to show information in public spaces in businesses anywhere really, it’s one of the things that is appealing.
You can think of even having it in your bathroom mirrors, right? In the morning while you’re brushing your teeth, it shows you the weather, and it shows your list of places you have to be that day. But you could technically do these things with today’s technology, right? You can put some OLEDs on top, you can put some micro-LEDs but, as you said, it’s just that feeling of something that’s emitting light in your face, it’s not what we think would be interesting from a customer experience point of view.
What we consider interesting is, you want to have an environment within your home where you interact with surfaces that appear natural. So you will have something that is not trying to grab your attention constantly, something that almost fades away around your house and your environment. And if you want to interact with it, you can, and it would almost look like a moving magazine, kinda right out of a Harry Potter movie. Something moves and it can give you information, but it’s not bright. And every time you pass next to it, it just shines out, so someone goes, “Oh, what’s this?” and you go, “Oh, it’s the Thermostat”.
So from that point of view, having a reflective technology that can be applied to any surface, that can be applied around your home on anything, it can be appliances, can be anything really. That’s what we think of display-anywhere type of application, that I think, has a lot of interesting features and a lot of design concepts that go with it. That you can’t really do today, you can’t really do these sorts of things today. You need a new technology which is why we founded Bodle.
Yeah, I remember, several years ago, Corning put out a couple of videos, I believe they were called “A Day in Glass” or something like that.
Peiman: Those are the best demos I’ve ever seen. That’s essentially what we are like.
So if you’ve seen those videos, this is the sort of thing that would apply to that?
Peiman: Yeah, exactly. That’s the sort of application we have in mind for this technology.
Okay. In my world of digital signage technology, one of the use cases you mentioned is public information display, how do you see your technology being used?
Peiman: So, I think there are a few examples today, where you have some public information displays that essentially need to change almost daily, right? And you want to show some kind of information with it. Just because of the environment, say you are outside, and you are somewhere Sunny, like California, you cannot really use normal display technology. I mean, you could and there are people who have done it and it essentially has a liquid crystal display, a gigantic crystal display, with essentially a fridge, that’s cooling it all the time and even consuming power and all that. So that’s possible, but the idea is, you can just have something smaller, you can have something that’s not constantly consuming power, that you can still read very well outside, almost like you would while reading a piece of paper that can be refreshed remotely.
I can’t remember who told me this, but there are places like in Australia where if you want to change the bus, they have a bus timetable around the country, for which every bus stand there, you got to spend $25 to change because someone has to go there and open that thing, put the new one in and so on. And, you can only do that so many times, right? So if you had a sort of technology that allows you to interact with the public more efficiently, in a better way, in all sense, then I think that would be beneficial for everyone, you know, the public, the company who makes it, the company who manages it, so everybody would kind of benefit. That’s really our vision.
As for every display technology, you want to start with a sort of relatively small display, right? Because it’s easier to make. For a startup such as ours, having some handheld device, an ESL device, those things are smaller and easier to make technically. But then eventually as you’re scaling up, and your equipment gets bigger, and the kind of capital you have at your disposal gets bigger, then you can address these other markets and signage, I think is a very nice example, and something that we could also do. That’s, you know, down into the future.
One of the things in the use case you’re describing with transit information displays is when it’s being done with e-ink and the limited number of applications today in London, Australia, Slovenia and a few other places, is they are solar powered. Is your technology able to do what it needs to do, just based on a solar collector on a transit post?
Peiman: Yeah, absolutely. The technology’s no power. So all you need is a source of a few volts for some time just to refresh the display, so that will be absolutely fine. And yeah, I think you’re right, if there are places where getting a display to fully connect to the mains is an issue and ESL is another good example. So you know, when you have an electronic shelf edge and you might have 10,000 in a large store, so you cannot plug them all at one main line, just the whole logistics would be a nightmare. So all of those are actually battery powered. So you have to have a technology that is Bistable, so it consumes energy only when you’re changing the picture. And it doesn’t consume a lot of power. So you can essentially leave it on for a few years out of a couple batteries. And that’s the sort of thing our technology can do.
And in order to drive information to the screen, what would be used and how is it connected?
You know, in my world of LCDs and LEDs and so on, there’s a separate computing device or an embedded computing device and it’s got a signal cable that’s plugging in and driving the display, how would it work here?
Peiman: It will be similar. So you know, with displays usually what they have is that some electronics are on glass, some electronics are on a chip that’s bonded to the glass, and then there is a little component outside that which manages all of those things. So ours wouldn’t be much different. It would be maybe slightly better sort of versions, more adapted, sort of designed for our particular technology, but in the end it would be just like every other technology.
One of the challenges that I’ve seen through the years with e-ink, is they come up with something new, they add color, they add bass motion, that sort of thing. And when I start asking about the cost of these things, they tend to dance around that or they will tell me a price and they’ll say, “Whoa, that’s not very competitive, and why wouldn’t I just use more contemporary or conventional technology for this?”
Where are you at with that? And how do you get over it? You’re at a startup level, I assume you don’t have the economies of scale yet.
Peiman: No, that’s true. So one of the strengths of our technology is that we essentially have reinvented an old technology. So if you have ever owned or used rewritable DVDs or Blu Ray, essentially the technology that was in these devices, these optical media is very similar to what we are using in our display. So materials, there’s sort of active materials, the phase change materials were essentially invented for that application, and it used to be a big business. But nowadays, obviously, nobody uses DVDs and Blu Rays anymore, certainly not the rewritable ones. So those companies have acquired a lot of know-how and a lot of equipment to do those things and now they’re sort of simply not using them. There are very few players now that can do these sorts of media. So what we think we can do is essentially take these know-how and take these lines that were used for this old technology and just use it for different applications. So instead of making rewritable discs, we will make displays with them. And essentially, that’s one of the, I think, key advantages.
We don’t need to invent new processes, we don’t need to invent new types of equipment that do these things, because every time you do that, obviously you have yield issues every time you have to understand how to fabricate something from scratch, but we’re not doing any of them. What we are doing is just simply taking all this knowledge that was long gone with all the patterns that have expired, and really thinking about doing something completely different that makes it in a way, inexpensive to manufacture. Also that’s why in a relatively short amount of time, we made a lot of progress, because we were able to take knowledge from these people and companies that really can’t wait for something new.
So that’s what we believe and we run manufacturing analysis, we run a lot of cost estimates and all that, how our technology is gonna compare to other technologies. And we believe we can be a lot cheaper than what’s out there simply because it’s a simple, and well known manufacturing technique, just for a new application.
Okay, so when you have a scale opportunity like electronic shelf labels (ESLs), one of the challenges that I’ve certainly heard is retailers love these things, but when they have to put $4,000 or $10,000 into an individual store, they look at the price of the individual tags and multiply that by 4,000 or 10,000 and have a heart attack, and so it doesn’t go forward.
Are you suggesting that your method and manufacturing would make that much more feasible and they’d be able to see the ROI quicker?
Peiman: Yeah, and I think that’s the main problem. I think the problem is that people cannot see what’s their return, right? If they spend that money, what exactly is the return you’re going to get in terms of these investments?
One problem is an accounting problem. So as they’re spending money, they’re thinking, “okay, this thing is essentially gonna replace labels, so I’m gonna save some money”. The guy who goes around and changes these labels, for sure, but then it’s still a lot of money they have to spend. So what we think we can do, which is more than simply showing a price, is also adding the colors and video capabilities to these products that can essentially add more branding and merchandising type of sort of play to ESL. So it’s not just about showing a price, it’s not just about saving money on replacing labels, it’s now a way for you to be able to sell more Pepsi or something or sell more things because now you can play with colors, effects and have it say, “Look, today this costs less than yesterday!” So this is the sort of idea. I think you can then change a little bit of the business model that today’s just thinking labels and add ways for them to get a return on investment directly from their customers.
But there is a big but. If you only can show a limited amount of colors and you can only show a limited amount of functionality, then they cannot really do that. Which is why we think adding color, adding the customization features is so important. As I said, you can change these colors by just changing thicknesses, right? So we can make a display for a certain retailer and then make a completely different one for different retailers, and that doesn’t double our investment. That’s a slight rise if you want. So that kind of customization is interesting to these people in this ecosystem. Because they can do more and they can see how this becomes more than just labels.
Can you do specific Pantone colors? Everybody talks about Coca Cola Red and how Coca Cola would not accept another red, it has to be there red.
Peiman: Yeah, you can do that. You can very, very precisely hit a certain color that you like, for whatever reason, which is what we are pitching to people essentially. That’s one of the things that we think is very interesting, being able to match your brand color.
You mentioned early on that you’re in this transitional phase coming out of R&D into commercialization, where’s that at and when would somebody be able to buy a Bodle Technologies product or is it more that they would license the technology?
Peiman: So, we essentially have started operations in Taiwan where they are taking whatever we develop in Oxford, and then just make it manufacturable, so instead of making a few samples per month, we can make hundreds and so on. And it’s just the beginning of our scale-up operation. And the goal is to, you know, within 18 months to get to a proper pilot manufacturing, have our partners and get to the product, where we are going to launch our very first product, which is going to be on ESL and start getting to the market with this differentiated product.
From there, the idea for the company is to essentially slowly move into more complex products and eventually sort of the holy grail of every reflective display player is an e-reader that can show colors, videos, and so on. That’s why we found Bodle, to get into e-readers, but we saw that there is this more short term opportunity in ESL, and that’s where we want to hit first.
That’s very, very interesting. Thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Peiman: No problem. Thank you so much for inviting me and I hope we can talk sometime in the future, and I’ll tell you all about Bodle and how we sold.
Keep me posted. And to find your company, it’s bodletechnologies.com?
Peiman: Yes. So bodletechnologies.com and you’ll find all about it.
Perfect. Alright, thanks again.
Peiman: Thank you so much.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.