The Story of the (Very Expensive) E-Newspaper Display That Updates Daily
A hobby e-paper project turned commercial product will display the front page of your favorite newspaper as functional wall art with the simplest user interface ever: none.
I’ve been around long enough to have seen the rise of the gourmet coffee enthusiast, the craft beer aficionado, and now, it seems we are witness to the “newspaper front page devotee.” The wall-mountable e-paper, a 32” large display by Project E Ink, will turn your favorite newspaper front page into a part of your daily routine as functional digital art.
Most of the major world newspapers make their daily front page available as a downloadable PDF. This tabloid-size piece will download and display the PDF front page of your selected newspaper every day. It updates automatically early in the morning and uses so little power that it only needs to be recharged once every few weeks. For a bit more than $3,000, it serves as art or a conversation starter over morning coffee.
Project E Ink's newspaper display is designed to be a focal point for your morning routine. Image used courtesy of Project E Ink
It is important to be clear that this e-paper just displays the front page of your newspaper. That’s it. There is no user interface. It doesn’t allow clicking on links to read the rest of the story. There is no browsing, no home control, no live video, and no color. While that minimal functionality may sound a bit frivolous for the price, there is some merit to the product. Minimalism is a strong trend today, and this display fits well within that philosophy.
Project E Ink: The Maker Behind the E-Newspaper
Project E Ink started as a hobby project by Alexander Klöpping, co-founder of news aggregator Blendle. Klöpping, a self-proclaimed news junkie, was inspired by a one-off project by Google engineer Max Braun. Braun found a 31.2-inch e-paper display with embedded Linux and Wi-Fi driver electronics from Taiwan-based E Ink. He created a striking frame and mounting system out of clear acrylic and Portland cement and turned it into a work of art. In Braun’s case, the display was hard coded to the New York Times, while the Project E Ink unit can display the front page of any major newspaper.
It’s the dream of many a designer—professional and hobbyist alike—to come up with an idea, turn it into a viable product, and sell it to the world. That’s just what Alexander Klöpping has done with his take on the e-paper display. Klöpping looked at Max Braun’s concept and thought of it in terms of a more practical and easier-to-build system.
He found an off-the-shelf complete e-paper display solution from Visionect, a Slovenian company that typically sells to the corporate world. Visionect's products are used to display information that doesn’t require constant changing, such as conference room occupancy and airport flight schedules.
Typical Visionect application. Image used courtesy of Visionect
Project E Ink Gains Steam—And Goes Commercial
“Easier to build” turned out to be a rather fortuitous decision. The project hit Hacker News and garnered such a response that Klöpping decided to start selling the product. You can now purchase one on the Project E Ink website. Visionect, for their part, is very pleased to have had a hand in its success. Matej Zalar, the Visinect founder, responded to the post on Hacker News: “I'm so happy when these kinds of posts surface as this is exactly how we've envisioned our platform to be used—by tinkerers building interesting ideas.”
From there, the post garnered 256 comments in short work, and that was all the demand validation Klöpping needed to productize and sell his device.
Why E-Paper Seems More Natural
Of the many different display technologies available—LCD, LED-backlit LCD, EOLED, and even plasma—e-paper is unique in appearance. All of the other technologies are light-emitting and actively refreshed for a very usable but glaring look. E-paper is static and reflective with a contrast level that gives the best rendition of natural paper. Conventional displays were developed as a successor to the cathode ray tube (CRT) displays of days past. They display beautiful imagery, but the colors are not true to life, and the refresh, even at higher rates, can be subtly harsh.
E-paper uses electrostatics to move tiny particles, which will stay in place without the need for power until the next image is loaded. Image used courtesy of E Ink [CC BY-SA 4.0]
E-paper was created to mimic cellulose paper as closely as possible, of which it does a pretty decent job. It doesn’t look or feel electronic, leading to a potentially more relaxing reading experience. E-paper is also a power minimalist. The display does not need refreshing. It only uses power when changing images.
Customizing the E-Ink Newspaper Display
While it isn’t 100% accurate to say Project E Ink uses no user interface in its product—you do need to specify your newspaper to start—users will not interact with the display after initial setup. In commercial usage, the Visionect display uses a web-based content management system (CMS) over Wi-Fi to load content that can be scripted for automated operation. The Project E Ink iteration uses a small, custom PHP program to automatically load and display the daily front page.
Once a user customizes the PHP to point to your newspaper of choice, you only need to charge the unit occasionally. It’s worth noting that if the battery dips too low, you won't lose your front page. It will just remain unchanged; it’s a bit like forgetting to go out to your porch and get the new paper. The same one stays on your breakfast table until you go get the new one.
A Modern Twist on the Morning Paper Routine
Braun and Klöpping wanted to create an anchor of calm in their homes—the opposite of the all-too-common smartphone cacophony so many of us subject ourselves to during waking hours. E-paper doesn’t look like an LCD or LED. It doesn’t flicker, nor does it overpower the room lighting. It simply looks like a traditional newspaper hung on the wall. As configured, Project E Ink's display uses modern technology to recreate the long-held morning tradition of “reading the paper” as a physical activity rather than as just another part of a frenzied pre-work process in the morning.
As Alexander Klöpping puts it: “Every morning, I wake up to a fresh edition of The Times on my wall. I find it wonderful to hover for a bit with a cup of coffee, scanning the headlines or reading an article. Mission accomplished, and I am one satisfied news junkie.”