Contrary to the rumors in the December issue of Wired magazine, Pixel QI (pronounced chee) is alive, and demonstrating at CES.

John Ryan, VP of Marketing and Sales, said their customers have them under NDA (non-disclosure agreement) so he could not go on record and tell BSN* exactly which of a half-dozen companies were showing Pixel Qi displays behind locked doors at CES.

Dr. Mary Lou Jepsen, Pixel Qi’s Founder and CEO, sat down with BSN* and explained how she and Ryan developed the world’s first fabless LCD company. Their original goal was a new class of display screens that uses standard LCD manufacturing materials and processes.

In March of last year, Jepsen at O’Reilly Etech conference spoke about her experiences as founding chief technology officer of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), an organization whose mission is to deliver low-cost, mesh-networked laptops en mass to children in developing countries.

Dr. Mary Lou Jepsen at O'Reilly's eTech conference, March 2009
Dr. Mary Lou Jepsen at O’Reilly’s eTech conference, March 2009

OLPC’s XO laptop is the lowest-cost, lowest-power, and the most environmentally friendly laptop ever made. It has received numerous awards, drawn widespread global attention, and spurred the new class of compact laptops – aka netbooks – which is expected to grow to over 50 million units by 2010. 

In early 2008, after three years with OLPC, Jepsen left to start a for-profit company, Pixel Qi, to commercialize some of the technologies she invented at OLPC. In June, 2009, they produced a demo video of the prototype comparing the e-paper screens against color and video used at OLPC, as well as against standard netbook displays.

Jepsen showed BSN* an unnamed netbook with Pixel Qi’s low-power, low-cost, fast video rate update (refresh), fully saturated color display screen that will be inexpensively priced.  Jepsen said their first screens are 10-inch diagonals for netbooks and e-book readers which will begin volume shipping in spring this year. Jepsen showed BSN* how the screen rivals the best e-paper displays on the market today but in addition have video refresh and fully saturated color. The epaper mode has three times the resolution of the color HDTV mode allowing for a high resolution reading experience without sacrifice to super color fidelity for graphics. Jepsen said that Pixel Qi screens can be used in sunlight.

The net effect is that you can put a Pixel Qi display in a netbook, tablet, or e-book reader and have a device that you can read indoors or outdoors. It can handle full motion video. And there?s none of that page refreshing effect that you experience with e-book readers like the Kindle and Nook.

Jepsen said Pixel Qi screens when ?full-on? consume only about 2.5 watts (W) versus 10W to 15W for conventional netbook displays. In the e-reader mode it consumes 2W. She said that by the end of 2010, they should be in the 1W range for e-reader mode.

BSN* asked Dr. Jepsen what it would take to move from the 10-inch- netbook display to the smartphone 4-inch to 2.5-inch sizes?

Jepsen replied that it would require using a different fab that specializes in the smaller display sizes.

BSN* wondered if there any problems adding a touchscreen option to Pixel Qi?

Jepsen confirmed that it was relatively straightforward because Pixel Qi uses all the standard LCD manufacturing techniques. Thus, any place a standard 10-inch LCD is being used today could be replaced with their display. Pixel Qi uses standard graphics chipsets so a retro-fit program will be developed through Do-It-Yourself (DIY). That will eventually include a retail version for existing netbooks. At first, the DIY version will allow ODM’s (original design manufacturers) to immediately use the Pixel Qi display.

Ryan explained that Windows treats Pixel Qi?s 3qi display as a 1024 x 600 pixel screen, it?s actually a 3072 x 600 pixel screen. Those extra pixels help make the text easier to read if you?re using Roman, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic, or a number of other languages. For Chinese, Pixel Qi is working on higher vertical and horizontal resolutions.

Ryan said that Pixel Qi’s screen is scheduled to appear in a number of devices by the middle of the year. Notion Ink was the first to announce a device – an Android-based tablet dubbed Adam – that will have a Pixel Qi screen. [Notion Ink also used Nvidia?s new Tegra.]

Notion Ink’s Adam is said to be almost entirely manufactured in Taiwan. TPK Touch Solutions [Xiamen] Inc. will provide touchscreen technology. Talks are underway with major Original Device Manufacturers [ODMs] for the final product.

Notion’s Adam is said to have an Nvidia Tegra 2 processor [based on ARM Cortex-A9 MP]. Mike Rayfield, a GM at Nvidia confirmed at their company?s press conference that Notion Ink had created designs with Tegra.

The Adam has ambient light and proximity sensors, accelerometer, assisted GPS, digital compass, built-in speakers and microphone. However, it will be loaded only with Flash memory (16 or 32 GB) augmented by Secure Digital (SD) card support.

It will have three interfaces: the touch screen, an on-screen virtual keyboard and a track pad located behind the screen, allowing users to maneuver the cursor from the front or the rear. A rotatable three megapixel camera at the top can effortlessly take pictures or videos within a 180 degree angle.

Notion Ink promises it will cost Rs.15,000 when it is out in the U.S., European and Indian markets in June next year [15,000 Indian Rupees = $322.44 at today’s exchange rate, Ed.].

Neither Jepsen nor Ryan would confirm that Notion Ink was at CES this week. Here is the CES video of the Pixel Qi display we saw.

In the coming months, there will be more original designs popping up with the Pixel Qi display screens, For small ODMs and DIY types, Jepsen told us that they are working with a major distributor to develop a slip-in version for existing 10-inch display netbooks. That could mean a 40 percent to 60 percent increase in battery life for older netbooks.

John Ryan ended our conversation with: "in today’s down-turned economy it simply took a bit longer to get all the pieces for the first fabless LCD puzzle to fit together ? especially the financial part." The Pixel Qi’s screen which is low-power, low-cost, with a fast video rate update [refresh rate], and fully saturated color with a low price point is far from being labeled vaporware.

As Mark Twain once famously said, "Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."