Review: Inkplate 2 Shrinks Down, Adds Color

Regular Hackaday readers may recall the Inkplate family of devices: open source all-in-one development boards that combine the power and versatility of the ESP32 with electronic paper displays salvaged from commercial e-readers. By taking the sharp, high-speed, displays intended for readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and bundling it together with all the hardware and software you need to make it work, the Inkplate provided a turn-key platform for anyone looking to get serious with e-paper.

Given the fact that their screens were pulled from recycled readers, it’s no surprise the previous Inkplate entries came in familiar 6 and 10 inch variants. There was even an upgraded 6 inch model that benefited from newer reader technology by adopting a touch-sensitive backlit panel, which we took a close look at last year. Their large displays make them excellent for wall mounted applications, such as a household notification center or constantly-changing art display. Plus, as you might expect, the Inkplate is an ideal choice for anyone looking to roll their own custom e-reader.

But of course, not every application needs so much screen real estate. In fact, for some tasks, such a large display could be considered a liability. Seeing a void in their existing product lineup, the folks at Soldered Electronics (previously e-radionica) have recently unveiled the diminutive Inkplate 2. This new miniature Inkplate uses the same software library as its larger predecessors, but thanks to its 2.13 inch three-color display, lends itself to a wider array of potential projects. Plus it’s considerably cheaper than the larger Inkplate models, at just $35 USD.

Considering the crowd sourced funding campaign for the Inkplate 2 blew past its goal in just 72 hours, it seems clear there’s plenty of interest in this new smaller model. But if you’re still not sure if it’s the e-paper solution you’ve been waiting for, maybe we can help — the folks at Soldered sent along a pre-production version of the Inkplate 2 for us to play around with, so let’s take it for a test drive and see what all the fuss is about.

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Driving E-Paper Displays With Memory Limited MCUs

It’s easy to become jaded by modern microcontrollers: for just a few bucks you can get a MCU that’s powerful enough to give a desktop computer from the early 90s a run for its money while packing in contemporary technology like WiFi and Bluetooth. For many projects we don’t even have to consider optimizing our code, because we aren’t even scratching the surface of what the hardware is capable of.

But sometimes you don’t have the luxury of using the latest-and-greatest chip, and have to play the hand you’re dealt. That’s when folks like [Larry Bank] really shine. In a recent write-up, he goes over his experiments with driving e-paper displays (specifically, salvaged electronic shelf labels) with 8-bit MCUs that on paper shouldn’t have the resources to run them.

A similar trick can be used on OLEDs

The problem is that these displays generally expect to be handed a fully-formed image, which can easily exceed the free RAM on a low-end chip. For example, a 1-bit 128 x 128 image would consume 2 KB of RAM — more than four times the available memory on an ATtiny85.

As [Larry] explains, his alternate approach is to write data to the display in columns that are only one byte wide. Combined with his existing work with image decompression on constrained hardware, he’s able to rapidly draw out full-screen TIFF images using an Arduino UNO as demonstrated in the video after the break. He hopes the work will inspire others to experiment with what’s possible using the dinky MCUs you generally find in second-hand shelf labels.

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Driving Three-Color E-Paper Pricetags With An Arduino

ePaper pricetags are becoming popular parts in the hacker community as a cheap way into tinkering with the technology. [Aaron Christophel] got his hands on a 4.4″ model with red, black, and white colors, and set about programming an ESP32 to drive the price tag instead.

The protocol the display uses was reverse-engineered by prompting the display to update via RF and monitoring the signals sent to between microcontrollers on the display’s control board. Once the protocol was understood, one of the microcontrollers could then be removed and replaced with an ESP32 for direct control. Implementing this takes some disassembly and some delicate soldering, but it’s nothing that should scare off an experienced hacker.

With the right code flashed to the ESP32, as available on Github, it’s possible to run the display directly. The hacked code does a great job driving the display, showing crisp lines and clean colors that indicate the e-Paper display is running properly.

We’ve seen [Aaron’s] work before in this area, when he hacked simpler two-color e-ink price tags. He’s also gone so far as creating entire wall displays out of salvaged displays, which is quite the sight. Video after the break.

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An e-ink screen mounted on a small white box is flanked by four mechanical keyboard switches. A power cable is routed from the device to a power bank that is mostly out of frame.

DIY E-Reader Has Hot Swap Mechanical Keys

In the early days of e-readers, most devices had physical buttons to turn pages and otherwise navigate the device. [bwkrayb] longed for these halcyon days before touchscreen e-readers and improved on the concept by adding mechanical keyswitches.

By using an Adafruit NeoKey 1×4 as the keyboard interface, the e-reader has four hot-swappable keyboard sockets with built-in LEDs. [bwkrayb] is hoping to use these LEDs to implement a front lighting system in a future revision of the hardware.

The 3.7″ screen displays pages after running an EPUB through ebooklib and Beautiful Soup to generate files that can be used by the Waveshare drivers. Refresh time is reportedly slow, although [bwkrayb] suspects this  might be due more to the limited power of the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 more than the display itself.

If you want to see some other open e-reader projects we’ve covered, check out the EPub-Inkplate or the Open Book Project.

e-paper display showing hand-drawn fonts attached to a custom controller PCB

Recycling Junk E-tags Into A LoRaWAN AQI Sensor

E-paper interfacing circuit is just a simple switched-mode power supply
Interfacing to E-paper displays is nothing to be scared of

[Aduecho] had seen those cheap eBay deals of e-paper-based pricing tags, and was wondering if they could be hacked to perform some other tasks. After splitting the case open, the controller chip was discovered to be a SEM9110, with some NFC hardware support but little else. [aduecho] was hoping to build some IoT-connected air quality indicator (AQI) units but the lack of a datasheet for SEM9110 plus no sensors in place meant the only real course of action was to junk the PCB and just keep the E-paper display and the batteries. These units appeared to be ‘new old’ stock, so there was a good chance that both would be fresh and ripe for picking.

The PCB [aduecho] came up with is mechanically the same as the original unit, but now sports a Seeed studio Wio-E5 LoRa module, which uses the STM32WLE5 from ST for the heavy lifting. This has what looks like a Semtech SX126x integrated on-die (we can’t think of a sane way an actual SX126x die could be flip-chip mounted, but you never know). Using this module is a snap, needing only very minimal antenna-matching components and a spot of decoupling to function. On the sensing side of things, a Bosch BME680 gas sensor handling the AQI measurements, and a Bosch BMI270 6-axis IMU, provides a gyro and accelerometer, for all those planned user interaction features. As can be seen from the schematic, interfacing the EPD is pretty straightforward, just a handful of parts are needed to generate the necessary bipolar gate voltages via a simple SMPS circuit. The display controller handles it all internally, programmed via an SPI interface.

One area we’re quite fond of in this project are the neat hand-drawn icons, and variable width font, giving the display a kind of note-like quality when drawn on the low-ish contrast e-paper display.

Air quality measurement projects grace these pages from time to time, like this hacked Ikea Vindriktning, and this very similar Wio-E5-based project we covered last month.

Giving Environmental Readouts Some Personality

Air Quality Index for one’s region can be a handy thing to know, but it’s such a dry and humorless number, isn’t it? Well, all that changes with [Andrew Kleindolph]’s AQI Funnies: a visual representation of live AQI data presented by a friendly ghost character in a comic panel presentation. The background, mood, and messaging are all generated to match the current conditions, providing some variety (and random adjectives) to spruce things up.

We love the attention paid to the super clean presentation, and the e-paper screen looks fantastic. Inside the unit is a Raspberry Pi using Python to talk to the API to get local conditions and update every four hours (AirNow also has a number of useful-looking widgets, for those interested.)

The enclosure is 3D printed, and [Andrew] uses a Witty Pi for power management and battery conservation. The display is a color e-paper display that not only looks great, but has the advantage of not needing power unless the display is updating. The Pi can be woken up to update the screen with new info when needed, but otherwise can spend its time asleep.

[Andrew] has a knack for friendly presentations of information with an underlying seriousness, as we saw with his friendly reminders about nasty product recalls.

Every Frame A Work Of Art With This Color Ultra-Slow Movie Player

One of the more recent trendy builds we’ve seen is the slow-motion movie player. We love them — displaying one frame for a couple of hours to perhaps a full day is like an ever-changing, slowly morphing work of art. Given that most of them use monochrome e-paper displays, they’re especially suited for old black-and-white films, which somehow makes them even more classy and artsy.

But not every film works on a monochrome display. That’s where this full-color ultra-slow motion movie player by [likeablob] shines. OK, full color might be pushing it a bit; the build centers around a 5.65″ seven-color EPD module. But from what we can see, the display does a pretty good job at rendering frames from films like Spirited Away and The Matrix. Of course there is the problem of the long refresh time of the display, which can be more than 30 seconds, but with a frame rate of one every two hours, that’s not a huge problem. Power management, however, can be an issue, but [likeablob] leveraged the low-power co-processor on an ESP32 to handle the refresh tasks. The result is an estimated full year of battery life for the display.

We’ve seen that same Waveshare display used in a similar player before, and while some will no doubt object to the muted color rendering, we think it could work well with a lot of movies. And we still love the monochrome players we’ve seen, too.