Polyera, Flexible Electronics, and Books with Movie Screens

As mentioned in the very first post I did on this site, I originally envisioned The Thirteenth Hour as a sort of hybrid between a traditional book and a movie.  Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if the spots where the illustrations in the book were located contained flexible screens capable of showing whole scenes rather than just static pictures?  Then, when you were finished watching the movie clip, you could turn the page and continue reading like a regular book.

I’m not sure where I got this idea, but I think there’s a part from the Tom Hanks movie Big where he and the Elizabeth Perkins character give a presentation about an “interactive comic book” that the toy company executives in the room shoot down because it’s too expensive.  I have to rewatch this movie at some point, but apparently other people out there found this fictional toy intriguing as well.  I even found this little blurb about the Tom Hanks character “inventing” the Kindle (which is probably a stretch), but given that this film was done way before ebooks (or even the internet was common), it’s interesting to think how technology has changed in the past ~30 years and what was fiction then now is commonplace.  In any event, the “interactive comic book” from Big was ahead of its time.  In effect, that’s what ebook readers, smartphones, and tablets are these days – “interactive books,” if not necessarily displaying comics.

But what if you could transpose the experience of surfing the net, with all its multimedia capability, to within the covers of a book?  You open the cover, and before you lie, not paper pages, but flexible electronic pages capable of displaying an image, playing a tune, or showing a movie as well as displaying text?

I don’t know if this is a reality yet, but there actually is a company working on the technology behind something like this.  A friend of mine from college, Phil Inagaki, cofounded a company called Polyera that creates flexible electronics.  The last time I saw Phil, I remember asking him about whether the technology existed yet to make flexible paper, and while it seemed that the market at the time was more for wearable electronics (e.g. for clothes and such), a look at the company’s website makes me wonder if paper-like electronic pages aren’t that far off.

Here’s a quote from the company website:

Made possible by breakthrough Polyera materials, our technology enables truly flexible transistors to be made using advanced manufacturing techniques. This technology enables more than just putting traditional transistors on flexible materials like plastic – it allows us to make transistors that are themselves flexible: a whole different level of technology. Our materials can also be made into functional inks, allowing not only traditional photolithography-based electronics manufacturing, but new low-cost, high-throughput forms of manufacturing such as printing.

Imagine, books that have multimedia built right inside.  Trying to learn how to play an instrument?  That instructional book you borrowed from the library could have an offline video tutorial right there on its pages.  Electronic medical records could actually be flipped though like old-school paper charts and electronic images, like MRI “films,” could be seen side by side with their interpretations and other aspects of the patient history and exam without having to double back or use some external viewing program that inevitable crashes the computer.  Trying to figure out how to cook that recipe?  Instead of trying to figure it out just based on someone’s description, read it first and then watch it being done.  If you don’t like that recipe, flip the page, and go to the next.  If you splatter food/liquid all over the page, just wipe it off and move on instead of frying your motherboard.

Of course, youtube does all this right now, and if you have a smartphone or tablet, it’s right there at your fingertips.  But one thing you can’t do easily with an ebook is physically flip through the pages and browse until you find the thing you’re looking for (or something of interest).  And, you can’t really look at two pages at once like you can with a traditional book.  In addition, ebook readers, are, by nature, small computers, and that makes them expensive, fragile, in need of power, and at least with some, difficult to use in the sun.  And I think all bets are off if these things get wet – all of which aren’t issues with, say, a paperback that you can toss in a bag on your way to the beach.

For the future book with flexible electronic pages to work, it would have to fulfill some of these characteristics.  Could you dogear a page you like, for example?  Could it be used outdoors or survive a little rain?  If it hadn’t been read in awhile, would it need to be charged?  (Even the best electronic gadgets these days still need to be babied in this way.)  Could there be some regenerative power source instead (e.g. turning pages to generate power or use of solar power like solar powered calculators)?  If whatever power source inside failed, could it still be read like a traditional book?  And of course, back to the original concerns that those suits from Big had – could these books be made cheaply and easily enough to be afforded by your average consumer?

It’s a tall order of business, I know.  For now, the Kindle version of The Thirteenth Hour is the closest there is to the original conception I envisioned.  There is also a paper printed version, and I can now hold a copy in my hands and flip through the pages, which, to be honest, is the main reason I wanted to publish it in the first place. =)  But, my hope is that with companies out there like Polyera, one day, there will be a multimedia book with this kind of flexible electronic technology.  And if the internet still exists, and someone’s reading this in a time when this is a reality and needs a prototype title to produce, send me an email – or whatever means of communication is being used then – and if I’m still kicking, we’ll work something out!