E Ink’s Tim O’Malley Talks About Where E-Paper Displays Are At, And What’s To Come

August 8, 2023 by Dave Haynes

Lifers in this industry have been watching the slow but steady evolution and maturity of electronic paper products. and are now seeing them get to a state that they start to make sense for certain display applications, while also looking good enough to satisfy marketers.

Taiwan-based E Ink is by a large margin the best known company developing and marketing this technology. While the big volume is in simple black and white displays for e-readers and electronic shelf labels, E Ink has been steadily improving its capabilities with color.

There are now premium e-paper displays that arguably look as good as what comes off a conventional four-color printing press. And there are also now larger format single and multi-color displays that won’t get anywhere near matching a specific Pantone color, but can do the job of adding green to a parking sign, to better indicate availability of spaces.

E-paper products are particularly attractive for some applications these days because they nicely address concerns about sustainability and energy usage. A lot of information signs that get printed and shipped to site can get replaced by e-paper versions that are updated over networks, and use a fraction of the power of more conventional public information displays.

In this episode, I have a great update chat with Tim O’Malley, or Tim O as he says he’s most known. He leads commercial activities for E Ink in the US market.

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Tim, thanks for joining me. In the context of digital signage, what would you see as the main applications for e-paper displays, E Ink displays?

Tim O’Malley: Yeah, great question. So, the e-paper display has two main characteristics that we leverage into those applications. The first is that it’s paper-like and it’s reflective. It’s not creating light, it’s reflecting the light around it, and it’s very low power; it does not use any power when the image is not changing.

We really want to look at applications that have been using paper traditionally, and improve that experience, create new functionality, and create more sustainability instead of replacing that paper all the time but enabling it to change. So, a big one for us is in retail applications, whether that’s shelf tags on the shelves next to the product or even some of the slightly larger ones that are indicating sales and special promotions about the product. 

Right, so the ESL market.

Tim O’Malley: Yes, the ESL market. In many cases, you’ll go into a store, and you’ll see they all look like paper. But they’re not, they’re actually E Ink enabled shelf tags.

And in that sense, there are a lot of installed signs, over 900 million tags installed in the world, and most people don’t even know they’re seeing it. Similarly, most of the out-of-home signs that are installed on street corners and bus stations are actually paper. All of the attention, of course, goes to the digital ones that you can update and show the latest movie posters, but there’s still a lot of paper out there and if we can bring more sustainability but also run on renewable power and the ability to update it remotely, that’s an improvement. So, those are the types of applications. 

If you set aside ESLs and digital fact tags, that sort of thing, and then the e-reader market, what would commercial displays represent in the overall business for E Ink. I would imagine it’s still pretty small. 

Tim O’Malley: It’s relatively smaller, that’s correct. Our two big applications are the ones that you identified. That means to me of course, that’s our growth opportunity, that’s a big area that we can help the world, but also grow the company. As we introduce our new color platforms, we have a color that has high saturation and looks like a 4 pass printing press color, and we have color that’s perhaps more muted, but it’s faster and easier to use and has wider temperature. 

We’re coming out with a range of products that can go into those different configurations and be more appropriate for larger installations of digital signage.

Yeah, I remember, God! It was probably like 13 years ago, going to Computex in Taiwan and seeing one of the first E Ink color posters. It was like a 32-inch poster or something like that, and I thought that’s pretty cool, but it had a color filter, so the colors were quite muted and over the years, those color filters have gotten a lot better, and as you mentioned, you have E Ink products that look like 4 pass color printing. 

Tim O’Malley: Right, the color filter approach does have physics limitations, the lights pass through the color filter, and so you do lose some. We still take that approach, and that’s still great for some installations like a lower lift in terms of scalability in order to make a display like that…

 And more cost, I would imagine. 

Tim O’Malley: There’s extra process stuff, so it’s the same. The material difference for us was taking those colors, those particles of cyan, magenta, yellow or red, green blue, and moving them into the electronic ink material so that we could move away from adding this filter on top, and that’s where if you print on paper, you get the full saturation. If we use the same particles and move them, then we get full saturation. There was a material challenge in 2013, we hadn’t solved it yet. But some of the stuff that we’ve shown in the last couple of years, and certainly this year in the Society of Information Display Conference, people would sit in front of it and just stare at it for 10 minutes, and then they would say, “How do you do that? It’s pretty good.” 

Although I haven’t seen it in person, it looks like a very rich, detailed, fully saturated color. 

Tim O’Malley: It does. We need to get you to see one in person. We can probably send something that you could look at and send back.

Oh! Do I have to send it back? Dammit. So, what is the status of that thing? Is it still what you’re showing at SIT and things like that, or is it a commercially available product now?

Tim O’Malley: So, in April this year, we announced that the product will be commercially available to purchase early next year. So at this point, it’s getting partners and downstream ecosystems on board to be able to support that. So that should basically say the technical risk is in a reasonable place, and it’s more about scaling and configuration than it is about solving any technical problems. 

So, we started with black and white, as you noticed, so we added red, so it was black, white, red. We added yellow, so then it was black, white, red, and yellow, and now this gets into full color. So it’s been a progression for us over the last decade, and that progression has given us the tools and confidence to say the platform has come together in a very reliable way.

Would that be something in fixed sizes, or would it be like custom manufacturing according to whatever the end user needs? 

Tim O’Malley: Yeah. So that gets into the business model and how we approach it. The right way to think about it is that most of what we make is a meter wide and a kilometer long, so we make it by a role process. Then it gets cut down to the appropriate size. However, we’re all familiar with the mother glass and the gen fabs that go through on this TFT. So there are efficiencies by different sizes, and that’s where you get this 16:9 cut. So, we are typically selling sheets of this that someone else downstream from us can cut to size. But then they’re still limited by efficient cuts of glass, or we’re making modules ourselves, buying in TFTs where again we look at the efficiency of the cuts of glass. So technically any size is possible, practically most people coalesce around standard sizes.

Okay. So it would be the same kind of sizing range that you might find for a flat-panel LCD display?

Tim O’Malley: Yes!

I guess what I’m angling towards is trying to get an understanding of this premium full-color e-paper display. If it was a 55-inch e-pap er display reflective display versus a 55-inch QLED or OLED display, what would be the cost difference? Would they be comparable, or would you be paying a lot more because the volumes are smaller? 

Tim O’Malley: So we try to characterize the cost into total cost of ownership. 

Yeah, I understand, it’s a sales-y thing to do, but I get it.

Tim O’Malley:. Yeah. So straight up, It’s typically more upfront, but the installation costs are typically much less. So a lot of our installations are running off solar panels. So, there is no digging up of the concrete or running a power line in order to supply it. You put a pole on the ground, you put a solar panel on top, and it works.

So that’s where even on the installation side, just the cost of the display itself isn’t the only factor, and then if we’re using 1% of the energy over the lifetime of the display, or if it’s renewable, practically zero because it’s not drawing energy then we want to be able to factor that in as well. That’s why I try to characterize it as looking at the total cost of ownership because we do want to factor in installation and renewal. 

Fair enough. It just becomes a sticker shock issue if you’re just selling completely on MSRP or something. 

Tim O’Malley: And I also said at the outset that we’re looking at paper primarily as our way to improve things, and it turns out that paper’s kind of cheap. So yeah, the people who are used to paper pricing will get a sticker shock as well, but the value is there. We think it makes a big difference. That’s an education project for us.

I was thinking more of this premium fully saturated color, E Ink displays being indoor products, but you’re saying they could go for digital out-of-home applications.

Tim O’Malley: Right now, the highest saturation color is primarily indoor. So again, that’s part of our progress to continue adding the capability to do outdoor activities. In the outdoor signs, there are both low and high temperatures and a little bit of the rugged UV side of things.

But UV is not that bad, as you can add filters. Low temperature is relatively easy because heating is small and easy to put in. But cooling is a pain and so making sure that we get the high-temperature right, which we’re working on and is very close. It will unlock even more locations for us outside. We do have other products, like we’ve announced Spectra Six, which is the highest saturation and mostly indoor. Kaleido 3 Outdoor, which is the color filter we talked about, is our other product that was announced in April, and that really is giving us the temperature range for the outdoors that does get into match the configuration of the application. 

What’s the refresh rate on that?

If it’s a transit schedule and it’s showing that the next bus is in three minutes when it goes to two minutes, is it pretty snappy, or does the image get a little wobbly for a few milliseconds?

Tim O’Malley: A little wobbly, interesting choice of words. 

To use the kid’s term spazzes out for a few milliseconds. I’ve certainly seen that in demos of e-paper displays. 

Tim O’Malley: Sure. But I’ll take a little wobbly over spazzed out. So the Kaleido 3 Outdoors is built on our black and white platform, which switches very fast. We only have to move white or black particles up or down. So, that’s typically a second, let’s say. Maybe up to five seconds depending on temperature and other factors. So, it’s pretty quick. 

The higher saturated sets that we talked about, that’s more like 15 seconds to update, and obviously, if you’re standing in front of it, 15 seconds is longer enough to notice. So again, we still talk about fitting the configuration to the application. It can be faster, or it can be up to 10 or 15 seconds. 

I’m perhaps weird, but I think it’s actually interesting in a way of attracting viewers in certain respects when it’s going through this change, because you’re looking at it going thinking, what the hell’s going on there, and then you see what turns into and it’s almost like you want to see that happen again. 

Tim O’Malley: Yeah. So, you’ve got a lot of experience in the industry, and you know that motion attracts attention. So there certainly is an element to it, you can use that motion, and in some cases we’ve tried to add that into the retail application where not just showing that static, say, price of the product, but sparkling a little bit or highlighting a little bit in order to draw somebody’s attention as they’re walking by in order to attract them to that product. So that is something that can be done, and it’s an advantage of moving from paper to a display but still keeping five-year life on the coin cell battery instead of having to connect it to power. 

How important was going to color filters for your transit or municipal displays? 

Was that something that the end user said, “We like this, but we need to show a no parking sign or whatever with a red filter on it?”

Tim O’Malley: Yeah, it was important feedback from the market and consumers, whether that’s a public transportation subway line where you want to be able to show each of the line colors with red, green, blue, et cetera, appropriately, or the bus lines often have colors associated with them as well, or red means no parking, is a common thing. Red is used to indicate something of special importance. That was definitely based on the feedback. 

That’s where we started with the color filter because that was the integration and that was the easier technical challenge and then moved to built-in particles in order to make the color more saturated over time.

Is that where you’re at now with the, I think you said, Kaleido 3 or something like that? 

Tim O’Malley: The Kaleido platform is the color filter platform, and then Spectra is our higher saturation, has traditionally mostly been for retail platform, right? And with the reaching of full color, we’re looking to expand that into broader markets.

Is there still R&D work going on to introduce video? 

I saw low frame rate E Ink video displayed at Touch Taiwan about four or five years ago and thought, that’s interesting, but it’s got a long way to go before that’s commercially viable.

Tim O’Malley: Yeah, so there’s a couple of things there.

Recently we showed, again at that same conference in LA, a display running a video. I think it was around 15 frames per second just to showcase that it was possible to have a display running a video and that was using a color filter on the display to do it. 

In general, however, the main advantage of replacing paper with an e-paper display is the low power when the image is not changing. So most of the applications that make sense aren’t using video because they want low power savings. Like I mentioned, the shelf tags are five to seven years on a pair of coin cells. You could shorten that to three months if you did video on the coin cells. But why would you? 

So if someone wanted to try and do video, it would lose some of the key benefits of low power. It could technically be done, but that’s probably not the best fit for the technology stream that we’ve been focused on, and the application we are focused on. 

It turns out there’s a really good solution in the world for video. As you mentioned, QLED or OLED. So that’s a fine choice for that application and for paper replacement, and for things like that, we’re developing a differentiated approach.

So you can go down that path with R&D, but it’s not a core focus, and you stay in your lane, so to speak?

Tim O’Malley: That’s a great rephrasing. Little shorter. That was good. You’re hired. 

I was in Europe a couple of weeks ago for a conference, a digital signage conference, and Europe’s very different from North America in a whole bunch of ways, but particularly when it comes to the mindset and the requirements around energy conservation and sustainability. 

When I was asked, while I was over there, “What’s the mindset in North America?” And I would say they’re starting to talk about it, but it’s nothing like it is over here. I know your company talks a lot about energy savings and sustainability. Is it more of a discussion in other parts of the world than perhaps in North America? 

Tim O’Malley: Yes, absolutely. I agree with your impression of Europe. There was a regulation passed in Germany, and I think one also in France, limiting the amount of time that a digital display for non-public information, so an advertising display can be operated during the day. So I think it’s six hours. 

Primarily that regulation is intended to save energy. My general observation from looking at the retail market where we were working in shelf tags, it started in Europe. They were maybe leading the thoughts on the benefits that you can get with low power displays, particularly on labor savings because the labor situation in Europe is a little bit different than in Asia and North America.

But the trend to use e-paper displays in retail migrated from Europe, then to Asia, and from Asia over to North America. You might have seen earlier this year Walmart announced they were adopting it. I expect the same thing to happen with this type of focus on sustainability and energy usage, and signage. We will see that Europe will lead, and then eventually, as the configurations are more mature and the benefits are clearer, it’ll start to migrate around the world. So I do expect that the stuff that you saw at that conference will be a trend. 

Is the mindset around being socially responsible and environmentally responsible, or is it more calculated that this is going to save us money, or is it simply they’re doing it because regulations are forcing our hand?

Tim O’Malley: I expect that when it turns into a trend, which I think it will be all of the above. I mentioned that the initial push to put shelf tags in retail was primarily for labor savings, and it was primarily in Europe. But now, if you look at the recent interview that the Walmart CFO did, there’s a return on investment by making these changes; we can update prices easier, we can compete online, can do supply management, and it helps us with logistics. Also, we still have the labor savings, and it looks better. 

When the configurations start to mature and come online, it’ll still be about sustainability, but there’ll be other aspects that are beneficial as well. We can use it for communicating with the public during emergency situations. That will also lend to the trend. Right now, it’s a lot about sustainability and energy savings. I think as it gets better, more and more attributes will start to be recognized and feed the trend. 

I’m curious again about mass transport.

I’ve seen and written about a number of pilots and initial deployments of e-paper displays as real-time transit schedule information signs at bus stops, and so on. I’m curious whether you see those turn into full deployments or, for the most part, they are still early-stage pilots?

Tim O’Malley: Most installations we’ve been working with today are city by city, shall we say? Each city is typically doing a pilot before moving to a larger installation. So we’re in the process of that earlier stage. In some cases, there are signs hanging from handles in subway cars in China. That’s an installation. 

Late stage pilot is maybe a reasonable answer, but also it’s part of the process of getting it through these stages of government bureaucracy approval, figuring out how they want to make infrastructure investment, and validating that these different applications and new cases make sense. So bus stations, bus signs, and bus shelters are a strong category for us, but it’s still early days. 

Yeah. Is there any mass transport system globally that has fully deployed? 

Tim O’Malley: There’s not a fully deployed global system that I’m aware of, but there’s a number of, especially cities, that are interested in what could be done with the right configurations, and this is where we are getting to a full-color product is also helpful to those installations. Instead of talking about it being limited to black, white, and red, it can do everything. Let’s figure out how we adapt that in a way that makes sense. So it turns the conversation from talking about potential limitations to talking about potential solutions. 

Yeah, I think Sydney, Australia, and transport for London and the UK have both done pretty substantial pilots, right? 

Tim O’Malley: Yes. Very impressive. 

There you go. I haven’t lost all my marbles yet. 

Tim O’Malley: You have been in the industry for a while. You must follow it. 

Yeah, that’s what I get up in the morning and do.

What about the medical market? I think that’s an area that’s really got a lot of opportunity in big healthcare institutions for information displays, like outside of patient rooms, at the nursing stations, on and on, and I know on your website that’s talked about. I’m curious, what stage of adoption is that? I suspect early.

Tim O’Malley: It’s the earliest stage, a fine description. We identified that opportunity and started working towards it. It’s a little bit ahead in Asia. Right at the time when Covid was starting, it turned out not to be a great strategic moment to really be focusing on healthcare. The worldwide healthcare hospital industry started to focus on something else at that time, and it has taken a little bit of a reset for us to engage in those conversations. 

Nevertheless, whether it’s an information board in the patient room where it’s displaying key statistics that are relevant to the patient, such as their doctor’s name or their schedule for the day. And we’ve done a pilot with Brigham Women’s Hospital in Boston, where there’s positive feedback on that type of board in the room. It’s nice in the sense that it’s not giving off light at night, it’s not like keeping you awake as if your TV showing the same information, and it’s unobtrusive if you decide you did want to watch TV, it just sits on the side of the room with the information if and when you want it.

Yeah, I suspect, though, it’s an incredibly long sales cycle. 

Tim O’Malley: Everyone tells me healthcare is extremely lucrative and extremely hard to break into. We’re working on the break into it at the moment. 

Yeah, I don’t think there’s any deal that you do in a couple of meetings. 

Tim O’Malley: But there’s real value there. We think it’s a potential solution. We are starting to see the conversations change now that the world is getting back to more normalcy. 

We might be seeing a little bit of adoption on the inventory management front first, where you take the same shelf tags that are being used in retail and bring them into those stock rooms in the hospitals and connect that to the inventory management system. So if something starts to run low, you push a button on the tag, or maybe it’s even automated by a scale, you can have a significant savings by managing your inventory better. So we’re seeing in the back room, maybe not seen by all the patients, that might be a pretty good application. So, we’re still exploring ways to add value there.

Yeah, I chatted with a company called Freshwater Digital in Michigan and their digital signage solutions company, but they also do ESLs, and they were describing how they were seeing some activity around things like e-paper fact tags in research labs for the cages for and trying different medications on lab rats or monkeys or whatever, and I thought that’s interesting. 

Tim O’Malley: Exactly. I’ve also heard and seen some of that. It’s leveraging that combination of this cloud communication infrastructure and the fact that you don’t need to connect the tag to power. It can sit there, it can be in communication, it can update when it needs to, but it can also go for a year plus on a coin cell. That’s enabling us to go into places that might have been more difficult for traditional solutions. 

There’s been a lot of noise the last couple of years coming out of CES with, I think it was a BMW that had E Ink, some sort of an E Ink overlay that would make the car changeable. Is that like trade show bling or something that’s real and one day might be out there? 

Tim O’Malley: Absolutely real, and one day might be out there, but also a little trade show bling. So working with BMW has been awesome. They’re great designers, and taking a technical mindset and engineering and matching it up with some design thinking created what was really a wow concept car. And so, the goal was to create a concept car to show what’s possible, and what was shown at CES this year was a car covered in E Ink material that could switch between 32 different colors and show different patterns and different segments and create a lot of wow factor. 

Ideally, over time we’ll start to work this into some simpler parts of the car, maybe inside the car. We also have some integration with the front lights and with the headlights and then work towards that full-color car covering; the exciting thing about that is it’s moving away from what we think of as digital information into something that’s more like personalization. Now, you can change your clothes every day or from one venue to another depending on whether you’re at a barbecue or a formal dinner, and you could change your car too in order to reflect either location. Hyper personalization seems to be a trend. That was part of what BMW was leaning into we have a sustainable solution, but also a digital solution for personalization. 

What about building materials? I think it was near San Diego airport, or at the airport, they had a parking garage that was collided in another E Ink material.

Tim O’Malley: Yeah, that was based on an old battleship design from World War II called Dazzle, where it would break up the lines. So you didn’t have quite an outline on the horizon, and they wanted to bring that same feeling into the rental car center, because they have the naval base out there. And we did have a whole bunch of signs on the outside of the building that could change and pre-programmed patterns.

You said it did that. Is that no longer active?

Tim O’Malley:  Oh, it’s still there. Architecture is not a primary focus, so if we start from that first principle of looking at places where people use paper and then bringing added benefit. Paper isn’t widely used on the outside of buildings as a material. You might have some signs or some advertisements, and we did talk about that. 

Architecture, there’s a lot of it. It might be interesting over time, but it wouldn’t be my first step from where we’re today. 

That’s also a very long sales cycle. 

Tim O’Malley: It’s also a very long sales cycle, yes, and it’s not traditionally an easy way to bring a high-tech material in. You really need to make the configuration simple to bring onto the site for people to install and use. 

This flew by. Just one last question. What can we expect to see what kind of announcements can you hint out over the next six to twelve months for E Ink?

Tim O’Malley: We’re heavily leaning into applications that are color, and we want to bring full color into all of our product lines. So the thing that I would be looking for is more announcements by customers and partners that have E Ink displays that are upgrading them to those full color solutions and in many cases I think that will help us unlock another round of excitement as consumers become aware of what can be possible, and hopefully, smart cities start to look at that and adopt it as well. 

So full color in more places is those type of announcements that I’m looking for.

Alright. Thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

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