The cereal aisle at your local supermarket may soon resemble the Las Vegas strip.
Electronics maker Siemens is readying a paper-thin electronic-display technology so cheap it could replace conventional labels on disposable packaging, from milk cartons to boxes of Cheerios.
In less than two years, Siemens says, the technology could transform consumer-goods packaging from the fixed, ink-printed images of today to a digital medium of flashing graphics and text that displays prices, special offers or alluring photos, all blinking on miniature flat screens.
"When kids see flashing pictures on cereal boxes we don’t expect them to just ask for the product, but to say, ‘I want it,’" said Axel Gerlt, an engineer at Siemens tasked with helping packaging companies implement the technology.
Siemens’ paper-thin display — composed of a polymer-based photochromic material — is capable of displaying digital text and images when prodded by an electrochemical reaction powered by a low-voltage charge. When the electric charge is no longer applied, the chemical reaction is reversed, and the electronic ink is no longer visible — which is how a flashing effect is created. The power source is based on commercially available, ultra-thin batteries. Electronic memory strips store the images.
The company provided Wired News with a sample display during an exclusive interview in Nuremberg, Germany, last month. The display resembles a calculator screen, except the monitor is attached to a flexible, plastic-coated card. Pressing a button on the card causes monochromatic digital text to light up; when the button is released, the text vanishes.
Miniature displays in color could appear on consumer-goods packaging, including medicine vials, in 2007, with a resolution of 80 dpi, Gerlt said. Three or more images could flash consecutively, creating a crude animation effect or cycling through multiple messages. By 2008, the resolution could double, said Gerlt.
However, Siemens’ innovation is not about to usher in the dawn of miniature and pliable video screens. The chemical reaction that must occur from the time an electric charge is applied until the picture is rendered is too slow for the instantaneity of video images that change in milliseconds. "Video could happen, but that is not what this technology is about for now," Gerlt said.
Reactions to the development by scientists familiar with the underlying science of Siemens’ display ranged from cautiously optimistic to mildly skeptical. Siemens has yet to demonstrate the electrochromic material’s stability and performance when it is mass-produced, researchers say.