Esquire to geeks: hack our e-paper magazine cover

Update: PT took apart the cover now that it's on the stands and it's not at all what we'd hoped. Pity. [Make] E-paper cover a "stupid gimmick"? No way, Brian. Esquire's animated 75th anniversary cover is the flashing, squawking future of magazines. It's pretty easy to see the far future. Cheap, disposable e-paper magazines on subway newsstands and on the racks of your airport's Hudson News. Each one thin, flexible, disposable. Just a couple of pages, with bright, glossy color, wirelessly updated with the latest issues of your favorite rag. Need something to read? Buy a new e-mag — or press a button to refresh your virtually dog-eared copy to this month's edition. That's about five years away, just like it has been for the last decade. But deputy editor Peter Griffin can tell you what magazine stands will look like this October, when then the 75th Anniversary issue of Esquire with an e-paper cover will be unloaded from refrigerated vans and slotted into the rack. For the first time ever, one of the magazines will be animated. It's not too flashy yet. "The order of the words will change," says Griffin. "There will be images that will turn on and off." The images are black-and-white in four shades of grey; a murky newspaper image, at best, but colored by a sheet of transparent, tinted plastic that will be fixed over the top. It's the same e-paper that's inside Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, except this sheet of e-paper — two, actually; there's a second sheet on the inside cover that advertises the Ford Flex crossover SUV — will cost just a few bucks, not $350. Esquire can sell the e-paper covers at the standard cover price because of the Ford advertisement, which has "defrayed a lot of the cost," explains Griffin. That's not the cop-out it might at first glance seem: should the Esquire cover make a splash, other advertisers will be willing to underwrite the use of e-paper in other magazines. As long as they're Hearst magazines, that is. Hearst, Esquire's publisher (and one of my employers; I'm a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics), has brokered a one-year exclusivity with eInk, the e-paper manufacturer. But on to the question most of the geeks have been asking: Can you rip out the cover and use it for your own projects? Griffin says it should be possible — "We look forward to seeing what people do it" — although there isn't any discrete input on the custom-designed circuit board that will control the e-paper. The data will be baked into the circuitry. Figuring out how to reprogram the e-paper controller or installing an entirely new one will be up to the hackers. Good news about the battery, though: it should be trivial to replace. "The batteries are pretty standard, small batteries," says Griffin, some sort of coin cell battery that can be purchased from a variety of retailers. That means when the soldered-in battery dies after an estimated ninety days, replacing it shouldn't be too much of a challenge. The cover itself isn't going to be completely stiff, having some of the give and bend of real paper. Griffin says the cover is "like a really heavy magazine stock, but not like cardboard," about three millimeters thick. He thinks they could have gotten it even thinner. "The thickness in the cover has nothing to do with the circuit or the technology; it's the protection we had to build into magazine for the binding. If we were to create a demonstration cover without worrying about the padding needed for the printing process it would be not much not thicker than a regular magazine cover." Image: Our mockup of a classic cover using an e-paper cover. The actual 75th anniversary editions have not yet been finalized. And they wouldn't show us the prototypes, the bastards.
Old Media, New Medium
New York offers a technology writer valuable perspective. It's impossible to crow about the death of old media when you're submerged in a sea of smart long-form journalism. (Compare this to San Francisco, where every person is either building a crowd-sourced Web 2.0 application that will obviate traditional journalism — or a journalist reporting about start-ups for an old media outlet.) And I am, as the JPEG goes, From the Internet. I first wrote professionally online; I developed many of my opinions and rhetorical ability online. But as I began to practice journalism, I quickly realized that it would be presumptuous to throw away the collective wisdom of a hundred-and-fifty years of journalists, full-time craftsmen who beat the streets, picked up the phone, and took the time to fully report their stories. Bear in mind that I am also aware that a lot of real journalism happens online in new media outfits by citizen journalists; I'm also aware that most of the work I do isn't journalism. That's my point, actually: journalism is a process and a craft, one that sometimes the support of a "old" media structure like a magazine or a newspaper to be practiced. Old media outlets offer content that citizen journalists don't always have the luxury to produce. The future of media is a mish-mash of both professional and amateur journalism — a very good thing. What's dying is paper. And it's about time. Esquire should be lauded for having the grit to put a project like this together; it certainly sounds like it was a real pain in the ass to get right. (And Griffin told me they're still working through prototypes!) E-paper magazine covers aren't without their downsides — Esquire has essentially just introduced the blink tag to print — but for this short interlude of perhaps a couple of years while e-paper is still too rudimentary to replace glossy magazine paper entirely but cheap enough to be used as chrome in advertisements and covers, I don't see anything wrong with enjoying this rare sight: a brief moment when our sci-fi pop culture future is about to flash plainly into view. – Joel Johnson
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48 Responses to Esquire to geeks: hack our e-paper magazine cover

  1. Bugs says:

    From what I’ve read about eInk, Macrumpton (@#16) is correct. The “paper” is made up of a matrix of individual pixels, switched on and off by electrically flipping charged spheres to be white-side up or black-side up. The spheres stay put until another charge is applied, which is why eInk only draws power when changing the display.

    So the magazine cover will almost certainly be a matrix, capable of displaying whatever it’s told to. It’s possible that they’d use a controller that’s only capable of switching a few large areas of the page on and off, but I doubt it. After paying the huge price for each page of eInk’s display, I imagine they’ll want to throw in a few extra bucks to really make the most of its capabilities.

  2. Anonymous says:

    @dillenger69: “I haven’t been able to find what this thing costs anywhere.”

    Esquire can sell the e-paper covers at the standard cover price because of the Ford advertisement…

    which is $3.99/issue at Amazon.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Can someone please make a “printer” out of these so I can tack a few to my cube wall and send documents to them, and each page appears on one of the covers? I could live with only printing 2 pages of any given document.

  4. just mike says:

    For some reason, my local Borders in NJ had the Esquire e-paper issue (October) out on Friday, 2008-09-05.

    See what it looks like:

  5. Pixel says:

    Potentially dumb question, *when* is this issue coming out? All I see is “75th anniversary” which is only helpful if I knew what month the magazine was first printed.

  6. Anonymous says:

    If you look at the manufacturer’s

    You can order kits. I imagine you might be able to hook it up to the sheet and make your own displays. Sweet.

  7. sonny p fontaine says:

    will it keep me just as warm as a sleep my sleeps in central park?

  8. brynnablue says:

    I can’t read this article without hearing Seth MacFarlane’s voice speaking all the quotes.
    Great, now I can’t either. I imagine Peter’s “smart” voice from “Petarded” – “Hmm, yes. Shallow and pedantic.”
    And random giggles thrown in – “Sweeet. Heheheheheheh…”

  9. kpkpkp says:


    >individually controllable pixels
    That’s called “active matrix”

    >where the words and images each have their own electrode
    – That’s called “segmented”

    Segmented is much easier to make and is most likely what we’ll see.

  10. camiller says:

    @ Pixel

    “But deputy editor Peter Griffin can tell you what magazine stands will look like this October, ”

    I’m guessing this October.

  11. Halloween Jack says:

    This thing will take off when, and only when, the question that applies to all media, everywhere and throughout history, is answered: how do we make this work for porn?

  12. Mike Levin says:

    The Barnes & Noble at Union Square has a bunch.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hi guys, sorry I’m about a month late, but I “hacked” the screen and posted some source code using the Arduino in case anyone’s interested:

    Let me know if you do anything with it,


  14. pffft says:

    um – if you could wirlessly beam the “magazine” to the “disposable” paper, then why does someone even need to buy a new one for every magazine?

    the whole point is that you won’t even need to buy a tangible magazine. a “magazine” will just be content uploaded to your personal reader, whatever the format happens to be.

    eliminating the concept of “disposable” is the WHOLE IDEA!!

    Joel – you’re TOTALLY missing the forest for the trees. :)

  15. Anonymous says:

    @21, Bugs

    Not necessarily. The *paper* can, technically, display anything. But putting an active matrix display below it (instead of a segmented display) would be more expensive. It’s the technology below it that controls what can be shown, not the paper itself.

    If you look at the EInk website, they actually have a section for selling segmented displays mounted to their paper. Its much more likely that this is the case for the magazine cover, since they don’t need to display any information dynamically.

  16. ihavenothingprofoundtosay says:

    I can’t read this article without hearing Seth MacFarlane’s voice speaking all the quotes.

  17. rustydog says:

    A paper page can be recycled as well. It has no battery. It has more colours…

  18. Andy says:

    Not related to e-ink, but reminds me of a promo in a business magazine I saw in the late 80s or early 90s which had an embedded audio chip that spurted some blurb about the company that bought the ad (I can still remember the last stanza of the blurb and that the company was Texas Instruments, so the ad must have worked). It was absolutely amazing for me as a young lad (the awesome parent-annoying potential helped), and a few years later similar technology became cheaper and ubiquitous – although thankfully I think those greeting cards have had their day – but if e-paper goes on a similar timescale maybe Joel’s e-paper dream actually would be only 5 years off…

  19. teamshadowboat says:

    Am I supposed to be able to recycle this crap or is than an afterthought?

  20. DanP says:

    Looking at EInk’s site, it appears that this could be the stock of their previous generation of displays. Their segmented displays are specced for just black and white, while their older displays are four grayscale levels, in line with the article’s description.

  21. themindfantastic says:

    So when this becomes popular will we have consumer device hackers like the Barbie chip swappers from years ago, who subtly alter covers (or not so subtle) while in distribution centres to say something quite subversive? I can’t wait for it to happen.

  22. Wassermelone says:


    The same could have been said about a lot of early technologies.

  23. rustydog says:

    A paper page can be recycled as well. It has no battery. It has more colours…

  24. Joel Johnson says:

    @TeamShadowBoat: Good question. I’ll ask eInk.

  25. jpixl says:

    Would you could consider hanging onto the cover to hack it as a form of recycling, Teamshadowboat? If you did want to chuck the whole thing recyclers would need to probably deal with the cover, eInk circuitry/screen, battery, and paper parts of the magazine separately.

  26. Anonymous says:

    #20: I think you just answered the question for #1.

  27. madsci says:

    I thought to be an ‘active matrix’ it had to have thin film transistors at each pixel. Most of the small dot matrix LCD displays I use are passive matrix STN types. The scheme doesn’t scale well, though.

    Anyway, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that this won’t just be a segmented display. The number of connections and the amount of memory required for a matrix display would seem impractical for such a cost-sensitive device, even if the matrix display itself was cheap. I think it’s going to make for some lame modding, but we’ll see. I wonder if they can be cut up into pieces and still work…

  28. Patrick Austin says:

    @#16: You’re thinking of the now-defunct Xerox/Gyricon’s solution. They used colored spheres. E-Ink uses tiny charged particles (white positive, black negative) in a spherical cavity.

    I used to work for Gyricon making their dust-sized half-black half-white spheres. Well, I should say that I *tried* to make them…we got _abysmal_ process yield. It was an engineers worst nightmare. I left a year before the company went under, but it didn’t surprise me when I went to get a reference from my old boss for a new job and couldn’t track him down.

    It’s great technology for some applications though. 2 AA batteries could power an 8.5×11 sheet for weeks. Once the image is up, it doesn’t need to be powered. You can do lots of neat tricks to update the display, too, like running a scanner wand across the screen manually.

    Gosh, I wonder if that NDA I signed still applies…

  29. Anonymous says:

    Batteries? You mean those little ones with MERCURY in? Plus wasted silicon, and solder. Large quantities of nanoscale particles – all headed for landfill in a town near YOU.
    The whole point of ePaper is for it NOT to be disposable. This is a stupid, ignorant gimmick.

  30. macrumpton says:

    I could be mistaken, but I think they might be individual pixels. Many years ago I did some illustrations for Wired for an article on E-Paper
    ( and the technology seemed to be based on tiny transparent spheres with a colored (black on one side, white on the other) disc inside it. I believe the pixels were addressed by a wire grid underneath that would make the colored disc flip by changing the static charge in the sphere.
    If that is the case then hacking the grid to control individual pixels might be doable.
    This was a while ago, so they may have changed tech.

  31. Bugs says:

    @#24 and Patrick (#29)

    Ooh, interesting. Thanks!

  32. Uncle_Max says:

    I’ve been waiting to see this in action on something I’d actually buy since my visit to Disneyworld in… 2002? That visit to Innoventions was the first time I saw eInk, and it’s about time it shows up in a magazine.

  33. Atok says:

    In my opinion “data is baked” statement clearly says that it is an “active matrix” display. “segmented” display don’t need any data – just on&off intervals. Am I right ?

  34. justphil says:

    I’m curious as to the need for the “refrigerated vans”. Just to preserve battery life, or the e-paper as well?

  35. Dillenger69 says:

    I haven’t been able to find what this thing costs anywhere. The closest I’ve been able to find is “not $350″.

    Has anyone seen a price?

  36. quantumman says:

    @#15 Given they are burning the circuit into the silicon and not using general purpose ICs, memory is not a problem, they just encode each image into the circuitry.

    The issue with a segmented display is that it has a single image in an area on the page which can either be on or off. This would lead to a very poor quality animation of a truck driving (the back page ad). It would work for simply turning parts of the cover on and off or changing titles, although not for changing text sizes or changing images.

    Either way they do it, I plan on getting my hands on a few, 3.99 + a few PICs is better than the 1000-3000 dev kit cost and more fun.

  37. zodwallopp says:

    As an artist I’m chomping at the bit (pun intended) to get my hands on e-paper. This is a whole new medium to work in… I feel like a kid in a candy store. Can’t wait to rip it apart and hack in… I think all the Esquire magazines at my local Borders may need an ‘update’.

  38. Anonymous says:

    So what do i need to do to buy this specific issue in Germany?

  39. madsci says:

    So will these things actually have individually controllable pixels? I assumed they’d be like watch LCDs, where the words and images each have their own electrode. That’s much easier and cheaper to do for large quantities, but it means you don’t have that much control over what it says.

  40. aldebran says:

    #32,33,34: Don’t forget the pilot episode of Firefly! “If you’d got in a little earlier, you’d have caught the bulletin—on a Firefly-class vessel last seen stealing Alliance goods.”

  41. Anonymous says:

    think that guy reading the USA Today ‘newspaper’ on the railcar in Minority Report when the article on the front page flashes Tom Cruise’s wanted picture.

    1 page, say 8 1/2 x 11 or tabloid size. Foldable or rollable, wirelessly updated, full color, with days-long batterylife and subscriptions to all media outlets plus the ability to serve standard newspaper-style advertising on each ‘page’.

    yea it’s always about ’10 years away’ but with this experiment by Esquire, it’s a close 10 years.

    good job. more like this until we get there.

  42. Anonymous says:

    forgot a link to that newspaper/chase scene in Minority Report… here it is:

  43. Anonymous says:

    oh dear god why, why is my firefox rendering that blink tag????

  44. windfaerie says:

    Jumping way ahead of course, but my first reactions to this technology:

    1) COOL! Like Diamond Age
    2) …but if the paper some day will be wirelessly updated, doesn’t that open the door for editing-on-the-go like changing quotes, changing the report of what happened, etc? Scary…

  45. Joel Johnson says:

    You know, I just presumed it was a matrix — and nothing said so far by Esquire indicated otherwise — but you guys may be right.

    Let me try to follow up with Mr. Griffin and see!

  46. Anonymous says:

    I can’t believe we are actually doing this when we have an energy crisis. Yes it sounds like fun and comfort to have blinking, self up-dating, interactive paper in magazines…. but we’ve got computers, smart-phones for that. Why not leave this other platform for expression as it is… and not waste more energy and resources on something that really does not need it. If we eliminate old-style paper, won’t we be eliminating permanence as well?
    Sandra Gonzalez. Mexico.

  47. Anonymous says:

    How long will it be until magazines embed Adobe flash, and adds literally pop up, and smack you in the face, dancing around and playing music while you try to close them and just get more popups?

  48. Anonymous says:

    Way to get the hackers hopes up Esquire. I don’t think many were picturing this from the above discussion. That’s cool… you saved me some money.

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