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Ray Kurzweil on the future of digital books

January 14, 2010 |  1:12 pm

Blio eReader

If you think that the E Ink screen on the Kindle look like a wet newspaper, you're not alone.

Inventor and technology futurist Ray Kurzweil thought the same thing. So the man who developed optical character recognition and voice recognition came up with Blio, a digital book software program that promises to put those gray-scale displays to shame.

"E-books should be more than digital copies of a printed page," Kurzweil said during an interview last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he demonstrated his latest invention. "But the e-readers on the market today are stuck in neutral. So we moved it from a boring 16 shades of gray text to an exciting level, with rich interactivity and full color."

Blio, which will be available as a free download in February, is designed to work with existing devices including Windows-based computers, iPhones and most browsers. The advantage is that Blio can incorporate many of the interactive functions people have come to expect from surfing the Web: embedded slide shows, Flash animations, soundtracks, videos and links to related content. Go here to glance at a feature comparison chart from Blio.

Kurzweil showed two examples, an anatomy textbook and a children's book. The textbook had an interactive quiz, and the children's book featured a narrator. For content, he teamed up with Baker & Taylor, a book distributor with a catalog of more than 6 million titles, though Blio will have only 1.2 million titles when it launches.

Although some E Ink devices have touch-screen capabilities, such as the Sony Reader Touch Edition and the upcoming Que proReader from Plastic Logic, the response time is achingly slow when compared with the instant feedback of capacitive touch screens in, say, the iPhone.

The disadvantage? ...

Alex reader
Albert Teng, co-founder of Spring Design, and the Alex reader. Credit: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times
... Battery life. One of E Ink's greatest virtues is the fact that it sucks up far less power than LCD screens, allowing devices such as the Kindle to go through 8,000 page turns on a single charge. But as any owner of an iPod Touch can attest, LCD screens need to be plugged in several times a week, if not daily.

Another advantage of E Ink is that it isn't backlighted, so it's supposedly easier on the eyes. As a result, most of the 40 or so vendors coming out with digital reading devices this year are expected to have E Ink screens. To see a sample of these readers from CES, go here to see a slide show. Some devices, such as the Alex from Spring Design pictured on the right, have both E Ink and touch-screen LCD screens.

Unlike many of the companies displaying devices at CES (it is a consumer electronics show, after all), Kurzweil's Blio is a software play. Download the free program on an existing device and buy books from Baker & Taylor. Whether that strategy will work depends on whether readers will abandon the current reigning book technology: paper.

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

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