Mirasol the Butterfly Wing Display

Mirasol Color eReader display

I had heard about this technology several times over the years and had not realized that Qualcomm had commercialized it and is actually selling some units though they have not yet had a big ‘insertion’ win as like Nook, Kindle or the like.  Unfortunately the first application the Kybo Reader is disappointing and if Qualcomm is not careful it could relegate the technology however good, to backwater.

Mirasol is like eInk a micro machine reflective display and not an emitter of light like an LCD, AMOLED even a plasma display is.  The early insight that lead to the Mirasol is that the ‘scales’ on the wings of a butterfly get their vivid colors from an optical ‘trick’ rather than from brute coloration. The scales are very thin and essentially colorless, made of that basic creep bug shell stuff, chitin. The scales are made up of layers of transparent chitin of varying thickness.  Light passes through the first layer and is selectively reflected because the thickness of the layers creates an optical cavity that selectively reflects light of a certain frequency while absorbing other frequencies. 

Official description Here:  Mirasol is made up of millions of pits with reflective bottoms with a multi layer thin-film ‘scale’ floating in the pit.  The pit is a form of capacitor that can be positively or negatively charged, in one state the ‘scale’ floats to a position where the pit is a light trap, so it looks black, in the other state the ‘scale’ floats to a position where it reflects Red, Green or Blue very strongly.  While changing charge state takes energy once changed there is all but no power demand.  The ‘floating’ up and down is over a very short distance and happens very quickly, so you can create a video image with the technology, even in video mode its much less energy intensive than an LCD.

Since it is reflective not emitting it is sunlight readable, in fact like a book the brighter the light the better.  It’s an efficient reflector so it’s actually quite readable in dim light and would need only a modest book light to make it readable in the dark.  This may make it marginally less compatible with capacitive touch screens, but its possible that other technologies will replace the capacitive screen (I hope) like this interesting concept that turns any surface into a multi-touch interface.

This technology seems ideal for an eReader like the Nook Color that is not intended as a full function tablet but wants to be more the an eReader (eInk really sucks at anything other than page rendition) though it’s quite possible the technology will come on gangbusters for all portables if the technology is really as good as it purports.

Who is Qualcomm and why does it seem strange for them to be in this business?  Qualcomm is the company that developed the CDMA (code division multi access)technology used in many phones today, as well as related technologies and has managed to leverage that into one of the significant if somewhat odd players of the mobile tech.  For many years they were pushing the PCA phones, the first digital microcell technology that disrupted the old analog cell phone monopolists.  THough they started on the digital side eventually they got into the business of designing the chip set for the radio in the phones. I believe it was Qualcomm that effectively proved that SiGe and even pure Si could compete with GaAs chips for the high performance radio frequency parts.  Especially when they showed that they could integrate the radio on a single chip and eventually on the chip with the digital parts. They were an early SOC (system on a chip) player.  Now they license the ARM technology used in most smart phones and they build one of the competitors in the tablet and smartphone processor offerings.  The work on Radio frequency devices gave them experience in MEMS (micro electro mechanical systems) which is the manufacturing technology behind Mirasol.  I would imagine that they see a long-term synergy between all these pieces, they essentially build the complete electronic kit set (including smart screen) that a OEM (original equipment manufacturer ) can put in a custom case with their choice of battery and interface thus providing the ability for and OEM to have highly distinctive product without having to have the expensive engineering resources required to design custom electronic ‘guts’ of their custom (semi custom really) product. 

Its a bit like Chrysler designing a car kit, the sub frame, engine, suspension, transmission, electric and electronic systems that some custom builder then can take and design a shell around, making it into a sedan, hatchback, coupé, minivan, pickup truck, delivery van, taxi etc….which come to think of it is how many car companies work these days with ‘platforms.’

Sorry used to play in these waters a bit, and still find the technology and business fascinating, Qualcomm is an interesting success story who flies under the radar most of the time.  I think the are like a company I work with today, they feel that constant PR flack barrage some companies put out are more about ego and stock price massaging than anything else, while being both a waste of money and potentially self-defeating by giving away too much information and setting the participants up for a fall.