HP Labs Developed a New Rewritable Printing Technology Set to Impact Multiple Industries
In March, HP Labs piloted a new writable, energy-free display technology that could impact a wide swathe of industries, including finance, hospitality, healthcare, security, retail, and transportation.
HP IonTouch is a secure, integrated system for placing and updating timely, personalized visual information onto digital displays embedded in plastic cards of the size, flexibility, and durability of a standard credit card.
“The IonTouch enables non-contact imaging, removing the electronics from conventional electronic paper displays, including the display backplane that requires electrodes, transistors, interconnects, a battery, and a processor” explains HP IonTouch project director Omer Gila. “This allows us to add a high resolution 2.5” display to each card with only an incremental cost of just a few tens of cents”.
The HP Labs effort is unusual for its technical ambition, requiring innovations in hardware, software, and networking as well as the chemistry and physics of a new kind of media – and for taking the company’s research division into the realm of new business creation.
“Developing it has been a huge but rewarding challenge for everyone involved.” notes Gila.
A new kind of energy free display
The low-cost, energy free display was developed to work with newly-developed IonTouch imagers and creates an image similar to that produced by tablets like the Amazon Kindle, but without the electronics and that remains permanently present unless reimaged by an IonTouch device.
The display media is embedded into individually identifiable plastic IonTouch cards printed by an HP Indigo digital press, resulting in a unique and portable card-sized display that can be erased and rewritten thousands of times to reflect a balance, status, score, or individualized message tailored to the owner.
The current IonTouch technology offers 300 x 300 dpi resolution display in black and white with 16 levels of gray scale. The 2.5” writable area is large enough to feature a clear photo for ID or entertainment, a QR code, and text information together at the same time.
A novel, and affordable imaging ecosystem
To realize their vision, HP Labs researchers also had to create an entirely new imaging device to erase and write onto HP IonTouch cards.
When a card is placed in this imager, a simple bar code on the back of the card uniquely identifies it to the HP IonTouch system, allowing the imaging device to retrieve whatever new information needs to be placed on the card. The imager then erases the card’s current display before printing the new information onto its electronic paper via a floating, non-contact print head in much the same way an HP InkJet head prints ink onto conventional paper – but without the ink. The entire process takes less than four seconds.
“The image can be rewritten more than 10,000 times. Each image can stay as it is printed forever, or until you run the card through the imager again,” says HP IonTouch lead engineer Napoleon Leoni. He also notes that the cards are made to be flexible, durable, water-washable, and impact resistant – and can thus easily handle a pocket or wallet environment.
Crucially, they also cost little to produce. Where competing solutions with a comparable electronic screen size cost more than $50 per card to manufacture, HP IonTouch cards are projected to cost less than a couple of dollars to make.
“That really changes the game and opens up IonTouch cards for use in a wide variety of sectors,” Gila suggests. “Since almost every plastic card in the market can benefit from a writable display, we believe the number of potential applications is almost endless.”
Potential uses include gift cards that display personalized messages and are both refreshable and transferable, security badges that are reauthorized daily, smarter hotel door keys and medical cards, and public transport passes and loyalty cards that update their value with every ride or purchase and include fresh information about the service and discounts or offers that are personalized for the user. The technology also has potential application for other kinds of signage, such as durable, low-cost, rewritable shelf labels of the kind used by pharmacies, grocery stores, and other retailers.
A strong environmental and security message
“Making cards rewriteable makes them reusable. This is good for business but also good for the environment as it eliminates millions of wasted cards every year” says Leoni. “Since the only way to change information on the IonTouch cards is via our IonTouch imagers, that also adds another layer of protection, making the cards very secure, too. Being able to update or rotate security codes boosts the security of credit cards and enables reuse of gift cards, replacing the scratchable or permanent security codes they use today.”
Another environmental benefit stems from the cards’ power consumption – they require just a few watts to be written and no power to retain their images, translating to an annual electric bill of a few cents per imager. This also enables new handheld applications where an HP IonTouch imager runs on single battery charge for a whole day.
Creating this novel ion jet imaging technology was just one of many technical challenges that the team of ten or so HP Labs engineers faced and resolved.
They also added networking and cloud integration to the system, enabling the Linux-based IonTouch imager to link with customer-owned cloud databases. A retailer, for example, may recognize a customer’s gift card as it runs through the imager, immediately debit it for a purchase, and then print the new balance on the card along with a discount for a product relevant to the customer’s previous buying habits.
A new business category
Recognizing their technology’s potential, the researchers from HP’s Print Adjacencies and 3D Lab teamed up with the company’s operations and supply chain teams and its Strategy and Incubation group to design an entirely new HP business concept around the HP IonTouch system.
That led them to develop imagers that are both extremely reliable and yet are “hot swappable”. “If you have any problem with an imager, our cloud backup system ensures a fast replacement. Just swap in your spare imager, authorize it with your password or code, and off you go,” Gila explains. “Just send the problem unit back to HP for a replacement.”
Gila believes that convenience and ease of use will keep card-based services in high demand for the next several decades and notes that despite a rise in new payment methods and technologies, the pre-paid card market is still growing, with more than 10 billion new cards issued each year.
“Almost all of them could be made better with our technology,” he says.
The HP IonTouch pilot currently underway deploys the technology at HP’s own Palo Alto headquarters buildings, featuring an advanced automated digital badge entry system based on IonTouch technology. It includes a touch screen, an imager, a cloud monitoring system, and prints out unique IonTouch visitor badges. These badges display the visitor’s name, that of their host, the date, the name and logo of their company, and a small icon unique to that day, making it easy for security personnel to confirm whether people are present with permission. The system also links to the company’s calendar software, notifying hosts when their guests have arrived.
“The pilot will give us important visibility and valuable feedback on our business and technology, including the imagers, the cards, our software, the user experience, and ease of use” suggests Gila. “We’re very excited to be able to share it with the world.”