Remember Invisible Ink? How About Vanishing Ink?

ER-2_Silicon_Valley_image2.JPGCNET reports that PARC (formerly Xerox Parc) the folks who have had a large hand in “laser printing, distributed computing and Ethernet, the graphical user interface (GUI), object-oriented programming, and ubiquitous computing” have invented vanishing ink. For those interested in the environmental side of things, it seems that making ONE SHEET of paper requires “about 204,000 joules” or “about the same amount of power required to run a 60-watt light bulb for an hour.” Recycling the paper requires “about 114,000 joules.” Printing on either new or recycled paper takes about another 2,000 joules.

If PARC’s technology is successful, the ink fades out in 16 to 24 hours. One can then reuse the paper. If one wants to run the paper through the printer before the ink has vanished, the printer can erase it. Here’s the key: erasing and printing requires about 1,000 joules; so half the energy of printing in general. Using the vanishing ink to print on blank paper requires only 100 joules.

So think about the menus, memos, maps, etc. that we use and then discard or recycle depending on whether a recycle bin is available. Now the paper can be reused. The energy cost of using obtaining a usable, blank paper is incurred once. And if one waits to print, the energy cost is even less. There is, however, a possible catch here: “The paper and the printer will be a little bit more expensive than their conventional counterparts.” So what is a little bit? Who knows? Given how expensive printing is right now this whole thing could simply shift money from energy to toner.

Still there are some things about PARC’s development that make it interesting from a law and policy perspective as well. PARC’s success stories are famous in part because PARC was not so great at making money on them (that GUI you use is one of them). Still, Xerox’s committment to a think tank where people ponder the future and pursue basic science “to create ‘the architecture of information'” seems to have paid off. In its current incarnation (it is now a whooly owned subsidiary of Xerox), PARC seems to be a bit more focused on licensing and the like. Yet, it had tremendous success before that focus was in place. So are the incentives that are often offered to explain innovation really the full story? PARC’s history seems to be an example of a more realistic approach. The business managers at Xerox set up a place which fostered an increase in the number of possible innovations. In some cases, they capitalized on them and in some they did not.

Research purely directed at capitalizing on an invention is limited research. It can of course yield great returns. Still in the words of William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.”

Goldman said that to explain the lie that movie executives know what will be a hit. So too for truly ground breaking or “think outside the box” work. One might argue that the innovator who runs against the current cool way of thinking and doing will naturally be missed by the mainstream because the work is so new that many don’t see or understand the work for what it is. (I think Kuhn goes into this idea but someone correct me if I am wrong please). As Frischmann and Lemley have investigated in their piece Spillovers (Polk Wagner has looked at the idea as well and both draw on Kenneth Arrow’s work), we should think about creating environments that generate spillovers.

So PARC has recently focused on clean tech and energy. This move did not occur in a vaccuum. Society indicated an interest in energy and the environment. PARC has begun to think about the issue and will of course try to make some money from its work. Still, it may be that PARC will stay with its system of setting a general goal and seeing where the scientists go with it. If Xerox can make money in house it will. If Xerox is better off licensing the technology, it will do that. The question is what will happen if the technology has no clear, immediate purpose? Will it rot somewhere? Will PARC tag it with a patent and try and stop the next Apple from taking something that PARC and/or Xerox don’t know how to use? That move would be a way to address the problem of not seeing where the technology applies (remember nobody knows anything), but in a way that says its our ball and no gets to play. All of which brings me the question of time. Perhaps it is the best lever for intellectual property. By keeping the duration of an IP right short, one can at least ensure that works are available for others to play with. Let enough people tinker and something really great may come out like Wikipedia. Keep information locked down, and the innovative cycle is more likely to be stunted. Put differently, as the rest of the world enters the innovation game, maintaining a more nimble system that generates large amounts of creation may be just as, if not more, important than the intellectual property claims that will go with that creation.

Image: Aerial Shot of Silicon Valley and surrounding area

Source: WikiCommons

cross-posted at Madisonian

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6 Responses

  1. Sigivald says:

    Only valuable if people take care to preserve the state of the paper and then re-use it directly.

    Don’t fold it; creases are bad for printing. Don’t get grease on that menu; grease is bad for printing. (Not to mention that this needs special paper!)

    I’d put more stock in e-ink for things like that.

    (I’m also not sure I buy the idea that PARC would simply sit on something that Apple wanted to use; it makes more sense all around to license the technology than to sit on it, as you mentioned as an immediate possibility. But that same possibility continues for the life of the patent (up until right before expiration, at least).)

  2. Deven says:


    Great points on the practical issues. Thanks. I did not mean to run by them but yes they too call into question the invention’s use for now.

    As for Apple, the GUI that windows and apple use came from Parc. I am pretty certain that the folks at PARC changed their model a little because they kept coming up with great stuff a la a university and others made money. So today if they are not sure about someone using an invention they could sit on it rather than let it out there as seems to be part of what happened with the GUI. My tech history could be a little off here so those into that subject please share any insights you may have.

  3. Andrew J Sutter says:

    Apropos of “[A]s the rest of the world enters the innovation game, maintaining a more nimble system that generates large amounts of creation may be just as, if not more, important than the intellectual property claims that will go with that creation”:

    Technology and other creations have ALWAYS been more important than intellectual property.

    IP is a way of redistributing wealth, not creating it. Since patents, in particular, are purely exlcusionary, they are entirely unnecessary for making, using or selling anything. When they are not simply a waste of money for the patentee, they are a way to collect money by restricting the availability of creations to society.

    (I leave aside the Econ 101 claims for IP’s incentive value, to which there are many counter-examples; and the notion of wealth arising from “intangible asset value”, which is an ex-post fiction to explain inflated stock prices.)

    BTW, most forms of “e-ink” (actually this is a brand name; you mean e-paper or electrophoretic displays, Sigivald) require special, expensive substrates, as well as power sources and input devices. Achieving color is also a problem, since practical electrophoretics require filters, which reduce brightness. They are not a suitable substitute for paper in many contexts. I spent a lot of time looking into electrophoretic, electrochromic, etc. technologies when I was at Sony. And notwithstanding that Sony itself released an E-Ink-based e-book reader a few years ago, in my past year of riding the Tokyo subways daily, I’ve never seen anyone with their noses in anything but paper or LCD.

    The best e-paper technology I saw, which was passive, reflective and achieved full color without filters, came from a start-up that was later acquired by a cellphone technology giant. Sadly, they have indeed sat on this technology. If PARC and Xerox are *really* concerned about the environment, they could just put the invention into the public domain.

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