IMAGINE having all the texts on your bookshelf, or those you need for a class or work, in a single, portable volume.
Physicist Joseph Jacobson envisions just such use for the electronic book that he and a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing.
The futuristic tome would be roughly the size and weight of a normal hardcover book, but with reusable digital paper pages and the capacity to store a hundred or more texts. With the push of a button, a reader could trade Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" for the latest by John Grisham in about 30 seconds.
Texts could be loaded into the book from CD-ROMs or the Internet via computer, for example. Or memory cards could be loaded directly into the book.
If successful, the technology of putting digital displays on paper and other thin surfaces could also be used for other products such as newspapers.
"This is an incredibly important invention," says Mark Stefik, a computer scientist at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. He says that perfecting a small, portable reading device with an easy-to-read display - something other US scientists are working on as well - is one of the items needed to "really trigger digital publication."
Dr. Jacobson, who is heading the project at MIT's Media Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., expects to have a prototype using an artificial paper in about two years. He says the finished product will be affordable - between $2 and $4 a page - and durable.
"You'll be able to bring it to the beach just as you would a normal book," he says in an interview.
A key part of his research is perfecting a digital display that looks like an actual printed page.
Jacobson plans to make electronic "ink" by embedding in each page millions of microscopic, spherical particles that are black on one side and white on the other, and a grid of wires that looks like a porch screen.
When the particles are sent an electric charge through the wires, they will flip to one side or the other to form type and even pictures. The wires are connected to "drivers" in the book's spine.
Jacobson says his interest in this project grew out of his previous work with display technology and his desire to modernize tools for learning, such as textbooks. He says his intent is not replace books but to update them.
"There are ... things that books can't presently do which would certainly be beneficial," he says.
"The most obvious is that we want to carry around a single volume, but have access to a whole library of information."
He also sees a need to promote sustained reading, something he observes that people just a few years younger than he are doing less and less. The Internet and its graphical World Wide Web have given this generation the ability to "flirt" with information, he says, rather than spend an extended period of time pondering any one thing.
"Don't get me wrong," he says. "I think the Web and the Net are phenomenal, powerful tools ... but I think there's a real question of whether they are tools for sustained and deep study of a particular subject, and I think that's more the domain of books."
Better for some books
Bibliophiles, such as Geoffrey Nunberg, a colleague of Mr. Stefik's and professor of linguistics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, doesn't see Jacobson's book as a tool for reading fiction, for example, but more as a home for repair manuals, phone books, legal texts, and the like. Any notion that this could replace all books "is silly," says the editor of the coming collection "The Future of the Book" (University of California Press).
"But," he adds, "it can certainly replace a lot of them. And given the amount of money we spend on storage and libraries, and the amount of paper we waste on producing books that don't have to be books, it's a useful thing."
Jacobson sees even broader applications for his research. His goal is to improve display technology in general, regardless of whether it is used for an electronic book, a laptop computer, or a hand-held personal digital assistant, he says.
"We're simply trying to build a better display," he says.
Some scientists applaud Jacobson's efforts, saying that there is a great need for a display that is similar to paper in contrast, resolution, and brightness.
Phil Bos, a physicist at Kent State's Liquid Crystal Institute in Kent, Ohio, says the need for a low-cost, full-page, paperlike display is great, noting that the things Jacobson is talking about "are extremely important."
For example, Jacobson's display would work in ambient light and would not require constant, power-eating backlighting like the liquid crystal display (LCD) commonly used for laptop computers today.
Jacobson's page display will differ from the LCD by using power only each time the text in the book is replaced.
And unlike an LCD, the display will remain fixed even after the power is removed. So the electronic book, he says, will need only a small battery, instead of the heavy kind found in most laptops.
The pages could be made larger or smaller than those in average books, Jacobson says, so that they could be used, for example, for newspapers.
He sees two possibilities for controlling the display to print newspapers. One would be simply adding an artificial spine, like the poles that libraries hang their papers on, to a newspaper, making it just a larger version of the electronic book. The other option might be to use paper that could be typeset each day by being fed through a special printer.
Challenges still ahead
Little has been published on the techniques Jacobson is using, and he is unable to reveal much about the specifics of his work, as it is patentable.
But based on what is known, other scientists say he's got his work cut out for him.
Scientists have been trying for years, with little success, to make paperlike displays, says Nick Sheridan, a Xerox PARC physicist who 20 years ago developed processes similar to Jacobson's, but which were upstaged by LCD technology. "It looks to me like what he's trying to do would be very difficult," he says.
Mr. Sheridan says challenges with Jacobson's work include getting enough electrical force to turn the particles and getting the particles and wires interspersed with the paper, real or artificial.
But there shouldn't be any shortage of material to download into one of Jacobson's books.
Xerox's Stefik notes that publishers are already working on ways to protect copyrighted material on-line and to charge fees to those who download it. He predicts that within a year such a process will be in place and publishers will begin to offer products on-line.
"In very short order you will find books distributed and published on the Internet," says Peter Yunich, president of Simon & Schuster's Interactive Division, in New York.
Jacobson says the project is being funded by the Things That Think consortium, a group of 34 companies including Microsoft Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp., and by Gruppo Grauso, an Italian media concern.
He says that if the technology is done properly, "it ... could have a very broad impact."