For a long time it seemed like e-ink displays were outside the reach of us lowly hackers, as beyond the handful of repurposed Kindles that graced these pages, we saw precious few projects utilizing this relatively exotic display. But that’s changed over the last couple of years, and we’re thrilled to start seeing hackers bend this incredible technology to their will.
A perfect example is PaperLedger, an entry into the 2019 Hackaday Prize by [AIFanatic]. This wireless device is designed to display the current price of various cryptocurrencies on its 2.9-inch e-ink screen and provide audible price alerts with its built-in speaker. It even has a web portal where users can configure the hardware or view more in-depth price information.
The PaperLedger is based on the TTGO T5 V2.2 ESP32, but it looks like [AIFanatic] is in the process of spinning up a new board for the MIT licensed project to address some nagging issues for this particular application. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there are any pictures of the new board yet, but a description of the changes on the Hackaday.IO page shows that most of the work seems to be going into improving support for running on batteries.
Even if you’re not interested in cryptocurrency, the PaperLedger looks like a fantastic little e-ink monitor for pretty much anything else you’d like to keep a close eye on. The GPLv3 licensed firmware is available on the project’s GitHub page, so expanding or completely changing the device’s functionality shouldn’t be too tricky for anyone with a desire to do so and a working knowledge of C++.
Its taken awhile, but thanks to devices like the Amazon Kindle, the cost of e-ink displays are finally at the point where mere mortals such as us can actually start using them in our projects. Now we’ve just got to figure out how to utilize them properly. Sure you can just hook up an e-ink display to a Raspberry Pi to get started, but to truly realize the potential of the technology, you need hardware designed with it in mind.
To that end, [Mahesh Venkitachalam] has created Papyr, an open hardware wireless display built with the energy efficiency of e-ink in mind. This means not only offering support for low-energy communication protocols like BLE and Zigbee, but keeping the firmware as concise as possible. According to the documentation, the end result is that Papyr only draws 22 uA in its idle state.
So what do you do with this energy-sipping Bluetooth e-ink gadget? Well, that part is up to you. The obvious application is signage, but unless you’re operating a particularly well organized hackerspace, you probably don’t need wireless dynamic labels on your part bins (though please let us know if you actually do). More likely, you’d use Papyr as a general purpose display, showing sensor data or the status of your 3D printer.
The 1.54 inch 200×200 resolution e-ink panel is capable of showing red in addition to the standard grayscale, and the whole thing is powered by a Nordic nRF52840 SoC. Everything’s provided for you to build your own, but if you’d rather jump right in and get experimenting, you can buy the assembled version for $39 USD on Tindie.
Electronic things are often most successful when they duplicate some non-electronic thing. Most screens, then, are poor replacements for paper. Except, of course, for E-paper. These displays have high contrast even in sunlight and they hold their image even with no power. When [smbakeryt] was looking at his daughter’s Etch-a-Sketch, he decided duplicating its operation would be a great way to learn about these paper-like displays.
You can see a video of his results and his findings below. He bought several displays and shows them all, including some three-color units which add a single spot color. The one thing you’ll notice is the displays are slow which is probably why they haven’t taken over the world.
The displays connect to a Raspberry Pi and many of the displays are meant to mount directly to a Pi. The largest display is nearly six inches and some of the smaller displays are even flexible. It appears the three color displays were much slower than the ones that use two colors. To combat the slow update speeds, some of the displays can support partial refresh.
The drawing toy uses optical encoders connected to the Raspberry Pi. The Python code is available. Even if you don’t want to duplicate the toy, the comparison of the displays is worth watching. We were really hoping he’d included an accelerometer to erase it by shaking, but you’ll have to add that feature yourself. By the way, in the video, he mentions the real Etch-a-Sketch might work with magnets. It doesn’t. It is an aluminum powder that sticks to the plastic until a stylus rubs it off.
It’s pretty hard to use the internet to complete a task without being frequently distracted. For better or worse, there are rabbit holes at every turn and whilst exploring them can be a delight, sometimes you just need to focus on a task at hand. The solution could be in the form of distraction-blocking software, razor-sharp willpower, or a beautifully crafted modern “typewriter”. The constraint and restriction of a traditional typewriter appealed to [NinjaTrappeur], but the inability to correct typos and share content online was a dealbreaker. A hybrid was the answer, with a mechanical keyboard commanding an E-ink display driven by a Raspberry Pi.
The main point of interest in this build is the E-ink screen. Though it’s easy to acquire theses displays in small sizes, obtaining a screen greater than four inches proved to be a challenge. Once acquired, driving the screen over SPI was easy, but the refresh rate was horrific. The display takes three seconds to redraw, and whilst [NinjaTrappeur] was hoping to implement a faster “partial refresh”, he was unable to read the appropriate values from the onboard flash to enable manual control of the drawing stages. Needless to say, [NinjaTrappeur] asks if people have had success driving these displays at a more usable rate, and would love to hear from you if so.
Some auxiliary hacks come in the form of terminal emulator adaptation, porting the E-ink screen library from C++ to C, and capturing the keyboard input. A handmade wooden case finishes it off.
Remember the “paperless office”? Neither do we, because despite the hype of end-to-end digital documents, it never really happened. The workplace is still a death-trap for trees, and with good reason: paper is cheap, literally growing on trees, and it’s the quickest and easiest medium for universal communication and collaboration. Trouble is, once you’re done scribbling your notes on a legal pad or designing the Next Big Thing on a napkin, what do you do with it?
If you’re anything like us, the answer to that question is misplacing or destroying the paper before getting a chance to procrastinate transcribing it into some useful digital form. Wouldn’t paper that automatically digitizes what you draw or write on it be so much better? That’s where this low-cost touch-sensitive paper (PDF link) is headed, and it looks like it has a lot of promise. Carnegie-Mellon researchers [Chris Harrison] and [Yang Zhang] have come up with cheap and easy methods of applying conductive elements to sheets of ordinary paper, and importantly, the methods can scale well to the paper mill to take advantage of economies of scale at the point of production. Based on silk-screened conductive paints, the digitizer uses electrical field tomography to locate touches and quantify their pressure through a connected microcontroller. The video below shows a prototype in action.
Current cost is 30 cents a sheet, and if it can be made even cheaper, the potential applications range from interactive educational worksheets to IoT newspapers. And maybe if it gets really cheap, you can make a touch-sensitive paper airplane when you’re done with it.
After starting out with a demo of the firmware in action before and after his modification, he explains how the E-paper works. The display is made up of many isolated chambers, each containing charged particles in a liquid. For example, the positive particles might be black and the negative might be white. By putting an electric field across each chamber, the white particles would be attracted to one end while the black would be attracted to the other, which could be the end you’re looking at. He also explains how it’s possible to get a third color by using different sized particles along with some extra manipulation of the electric field. And he talks about the issue of burn-in and how to avoid it.
Having given us that background, he then walks us through some of the firmware and shows how he modified it to make it faster, namely by researching various datasheets and subsequently modifying some look-up-tables.
Turning back to the hardware, he shows how he scratches out some traces so that he can attach scope probes. This alone seems like a notable achievement, though he points out that the conductive layer holds up well to his scratching. At that point he analyses the signals while running some demos.
The result is the very informative, interesting and entertaining video which you can watch below.
The E-Paper or E-Ink displays have several advantages. They are low power, they retain their display even without power, and they are very visible in direct light. The downside is they don’t update as fast as some other display technologies.