PaperBack: Desktop E-Paper Monitor

An E-Paper monitor driven by either VGA or an Internet Connected Microcontroller.

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PaperBack is a secondary E-Paper Display on your desktop. In one mode, it is an Internet-Connected, ESP32 Driven display. In another, it is a standard 6" Secondary VGA Display.

E-Ink, or E-Paper has become popular for its ease of reading. Generally, E-Paper closely matches the readability of a piece of paper. We've learned more and more about the harmful effects on vision (and sleep!) from certain wavelengths of blue light as well as the eye strain issues that come from staring at backlit displays. E-Paper is a great technology to occasionally give our eyes a rest while fulfilling the need for a (moderately) dense display technology for the desktop.

E-Ink has a secondary benefit: it doesn't need to be refreshed. While each frame rewrite does take a fairly large amount of power, by carefully picking a lower framerate we'll use significantly less power than whatever you've got on your desktop today.

PaperBack consists of two PCBs and an optional removable ESP32 development board:

  1. Mandatory "Breakout & Power Board"
    1. This board has facilities to generate all the voltages needed by the ePaper Display and the ESP32 Dev Board.  It can drive a 6" ePaper display from either the female headers (which are designed to fit an ESP32 Dev Board) or the board to board connectors on the left side. 

      It has an optional header for an ESP32, which can drive the ePaper Display either from RAM or over the network.  There is also an optional Lithium battery charger/hookup; while the board is unplugged the Lithium Ion battery can power screen refreshes.

      If you choose to use the VGA input board, the ESP32 must be removed; only one mode will work at a time.
  2. Optional "VGA Input Board"
    1. This board has an ATMega328 microcontroller (for EDID information), a VGA PLL and capture chip (AD9883 or MST9883), 4 MBit of SRAM (framebuffer) and a LCMXO1200C FPGA for the high speed conversions.

      Signals are passed over the board edge connection to drive the ePaper display connected to the first board.

      While this board is employed, PaperBack can be used like a VGA monitor with a low refresh rate (i.e. secondary or tertiary monitor).  Because it uses ePaper, it can be unplugged and moved (or even used!) without losing the information onscreen.

Technical Specs:

  • 6" E-Paper Display (e.g. the 6" Kindle Compatible Screens)
    • ED060SC4 // LB060S01 // LB060S04
  • 800x600
  • User-selectable refresh rate (Next development)
    • A full greyscale refresh will be ~ 1 second.  Will look at workarounds.
  • VGA Input

Hackaday Prize Prompts:


  • MIT

  • 1 × Maxim MAX1555 SOT23-5 Lithiuargerm ion Ch
  • 1 × ON Semiconductor MC78M15CDTGOS-ND DPAK-3 15V Linear Regulator
  • 1 × ON Semiconductor MC79M15CDTGOS-ND DPAK-3 -15V Linear Regulator
  • 1 × Linear Technology LT1945EMS 10-MSOP Dual Switching Regulator
  • 1 × Diodes Incorporated PAM3110BLA330RDICT TO-252 3.3V Linear Regulator

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  • EDID: Working!

    PK08/04/2017 at 15:41 0 comments

    I thought adding EDID - which is how monitors identify themselves to display sources - was going to be a difficult step.  (For VGA/DDC2, this is on pin 12 & 15 and uses I2C).  It wasn't...

    Above, there's PaperBack letting a laptop (which conveniently has VGA built in) know its size, supported resolutions and timings.  (Yes, I crafted that serial number 'PNP4321'). 

    I had SDA and SDL connected to the ATMega onboard the second board, and based my code on Rocky Hill's Arduino EDID emulator.  For the EDID itself, I used Deltacast's EDID editing application to craft a v1.3 EDID... but you could write a valid block yourself from the documentation out there.

    Best Product Update

    Unfortunately for PaperBack and me, we didn't make the Best Product finals.  Luckily, there are a few more rounds of the Hackaday Prize - wish me luck and perhaps I'll make it through to the finals in another round!

  • PaperBack: Deadline Family Photo

    PK07/24/2017 at 07:23 0 comments

    As the clock ticks down on the 2017 Best Product deadline (and with the business plan now on paper), I also wanted to share PaperBack's physical progress.

    I build all three OSH Park boards for the VGA Conversion PCB, and tried to get an aesthetic shot of the whole family without waking up... my sleeping family. 

    Here's how it looks:

    Aren't they a good looking bunch?

    That image means I'm switching to the software domain next, and attempting to get the VGA conversion going.  I wouldn't suggest building the second board yet - let me be the guinea pig who breaks stuff first! - but I've also posted PCB #2 to Github

    Go check it out - and stay tuned!

  • PaperBack: Draft Business Plan

    PK07/24/2017 at 06:54 0 comments

    I wrote up a brief business plan for PaperBack... albeit more in the form of an investment pitch.  Now I'm just a hobbyist building a product I'd love to own - but if I were to scale up, this is where I'd start; enjoy!

    Executive Summary

    PaperBack is a 6" secondary desktop monitor based on an ePaper Display.

    In one mode PaperBack works as an Internet Connected Display.  With a second board, PaperBack can be converted into a 6" VGA Monitor.

    Mission Statement

    PaperBack is either an internet connected or a desktop ePaper Display.

    Designed around a 6" ePaper panel, PaperBack promises lower energy consumption than a standard desktop monitor.  PaperBack has the ability to run off a Lithium Ion battery, but for static images requires zero energy to maintain a current image.

    Additionally, PaperBack does not emit potentially harmful or discomforting blue light.  As some wavelengths of blue light are sleep disrupting or annoying, PaperBack should be very usable at the end of the day.

    Finally, PaperBack is educational.  We've written extensively on our development process as well as open sourced all hardware designs and schematics.  All firmware is licensed with the MIT license, and everything non-physical needed to build PaperBack is available for free online.

    Target Market

    One of PaperBack's target markets users who display static images and text on a secondary display, such as people in the scientific and engineering communities.  Reference materials, schematics and engineering drawings pair well with ePaper and can be left on screen indefinitely without an additional power requirement.

    A second target market is for users looking for an internet connected display.  Many applications are possible - calendars, weather stations, picture galleries, virtual whiteboards, info displays and more.  The nonexistent power requirement for static images is perfect for slowly changing information and informational setups.

    Other Similar Products

    Currently, the Dasung Paperlike is the only product we are aware of that fills a similar niche.  The PaperLike is a 13.3" ePaper Display with up to 1600x1200 resolution, and 4-Bit Greyscale (16-Colors). 

    It boasts similar refresh rates to PaperBack.  It ships with a number of contrast modes, some of which speed up refreshes greatly.  The Paperlike uses USB for power, and has a USB display driver - but not a standard desktop display interface.

    The next version of the Paperlike does add a standard interface, HDMI.  It is not yet released.

    The Paperlike is not yet widely available in the United States and the first version cost more than $1,000.  The next version (HDMI) can currently be purchased for $899.

    In the internet connected configuration, there is some crossover with ePaper eBook readers.  The number of models is too extensive to list, but some eReaders have app stores and applications which target similar functionality.  We hope that superior integration in Internet Connected mode gives PaperBack the edge.

    Product Sales Summary

    • Educational
      PaperBack sold as an educational product should not have much margin built in.  Educational build materials are available online, and a user can bring their own parts and programmers to build PaperBack in any configuration.

      Selling a PaperBack Build kit is an option, with a small margin built in for book printing, sourcing, programming, shipping, and handling. 
    • Internet Connected Display
      PaperBack's primary sales configuration is as an internet-connected display.  Products sold in this configuration do have the option to later upgrade to VGA displays.

      An app store would be the ideal way to extend the capabilities of the Internet Connected PaperBack configuration.  At launch, PaperBack would need some demo applications; priorities are an image gallery and a calendar.  These applications would also be open sourced...
    Read more »

  • VGA Converter Board Update: First One Built

    PK07/22/2017 at 23:17 1 comment

    It looks pretty good, doesn't it?

    I've also got it docked with the first PCB, the power & breakout board - and you'll note I've removed the ESP32 from the headers. 

    If all works out, PaperBack is a two-in-one product.  With the ESP32 inserted it'll be an internet-connected ePaper screen; with the ESP32 removed and the second board docked it'll work just like a VGA desktop monitor (with slow refresh rate - it's still ePaper!).

    Wish me luck - it's time to start programming all those parts to fit them together...

    My best guess is I won't finish coding this weekend; I'll be sure to put the parts in the BoM though for the prerequisites of the Best Product deadline Monday.  I should have plenty of time for the integration before the final deadline!

  • New PCBs are Here: VGA Input Board!

    PK07/18/2017 at 02:53 1 comment

    Look what just came in the mail - 3 PCBs from @oshpark ! Thank you again for the generous coupon, they look excellent!

    This second PCB is the VGA input board; if everything goes well we'll capture VGA frames then blast them over the header on the right to the ePaper screen.

    Just like a regular monitor! (You know, except not 60 frames per second. It's still ePaper...)

    I won't be able to put it together until Saturday, but I'll post the BoM for the 2 boards in the meantime.

  • Family Photo: 4 Working E-Paper Breakouts!

    PK07/14/2017 at 04:37 1 comment

    Here's a picture of my current status, with 4 working PCBs:

    Unfortunately, I destroyed some outputs of 2 of those ESP32s in the process. One drives the displays but skips every other line (probably the data lines). One... drives the power supplies but doesn't update the displays (same).

    But the new one - my third - drives an EPD perfectly! Isn't experimentation grand?

    Next step is waiting on the PCBs for the conversion board and a components shipment. Here's a teaser:

  • New PCBs: Hardware Posted on Github

    PK07/11/2017 at 08:00 0 comments

    Ready to build your own? I just posted a wealth of IP to Github, ready for you to purchase some PCBs and match my results. I build the PCBs in Kicad, but I've also included Gerbers and a PDF Schematic for you non-Kicaders.

    At this point the project matches the results of some of the projects I mentioned in this log. The board in the picture is an ESP32, which has enough pins to drive the 6" ePaper display without shift registers.

    I will continue to improve the software on the ESP32 and make it do some funky web tricks - so even if the rest of the project is a dud we'll have a product.

    In parallel, I sent the first draft of the conversion board off to @oshpark, who generously sent me a coupon. With some luck and a lot of VHDL and C, I'll be able to take VGA in at 800x600. I'll then have the board grab a frame and convert it to something the ePaper Display can read, then pump it out to the screen. If all goes well, we'll perform that symphony up to (it'll be an option) roughly 1x a second or so.

  • New PCBs: Working!

    PK07/10/2017 at 02:11 0 comments

    Let me clean up a bit and I'll toss them up on Github. Here's a preview:

    On the left is the new run, on the right is the old one. I fixed the mistake that caused me to bodge, moved some components, and made more parts surface mount.

    The only problem? It takes me about 90 minutes to put one together! Stay tuned, I'll post again when everything is uploaded.

  • New PCBs!

    PK06/28/2017 at 05:43 0 comments

    Just a snap - I'm still waiting on a parts order to put this batch together.

    Fingers crossed for no bodges!

    I'm working on the VGA graphics conversion boards in parallel. Expect an update soon.

  • Brainstorming on Video Input

    PK06/22/2017 at 15:36 0 comments

    The next step is taking some monitor input and getting it to display on the ePaper Display.

    I'm going with VGA - I'll try to use a MST9883 (that's what was on eBay). The canonical part is the Analog Devices AD9883; essentially it will save a lot of steps with this project. It takes RGB input and recovers a pixel clock from HSync and dumps all of the pixel colors in parallel.

    Also, there is an I²C component - EDID on VGA and settings on the MST9883. I'm going to just use a microcontroller to do these.

    Add up memory plus the MST9883 plus a couple SPI busses plus the ePD signals and you're looking at a minimum of 68 to 83 I/Os on the FPGA/BIG_CPLD (depending on color depth), probably 71 minimum to get 4-bit 'color'.

    Any suggestions on FPGAs here? I'm reasonably agnostic, I just want something reasonable with plenty of LEs.

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Enjoy this project?



Ryan Shuck wrote 09/11/2017 at 05:03 point

Any updates on this? Very interesting progress so far!

  Are you sure? yes | no

PK wrote 7 days ago point

There is - but all on a MachXO dev board (I am using the LCMXO2280C-B-EVN), nothing on the Converter PCB yet. Stay tuned though, I'll start moving things over reasonably soon.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Kaspar Emanuel wrote 07/23/2017 at 21:42 point

Have you seen this project?

Seems like quite similar goals and a nice write-up of the signal required to drive these types of screens. Also uses an ice40 FPGA, albeit to drive the display itself.

  Are you sure? yes | no

PK wrote 07/23/2017 at 23:32 point

Yes, very nice - we will have some great parallels.  Only thing was I was planning on using Lattice Diamond - not sure the MachXOs work with IceStorm yet.  If you don't use the ESP32 with PaperBack the MachXO will be driving the EPD directly from PCB #2.

Thank you for sharing!

  Are you sure? yes | no

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