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HP developing a 'Dick Tracy' wristwatch

By John D. Sutter, CNN
HP has developed a process for creating flexible plastic displays that could be used in a number of gadgets.
HP has developed a process for creating flexible plastic displays that could be used in a number of gadgets.
  • HP is developing a wristwatch with a plastic display
  • The company says the watch will be useful to the military
  • It runs on solar power, is light and won't break easily, HP says
  • The company expects to have a prototype in a year

Palo Alto, California (CNN) -- Hewlett-Packard says it's developing a next-generation wristwatch for the U.S. military.

The printing and computer company says the watch will have a flexible display that shows maps and other strategic information to soldiers in remote combat fields. The watch's screen will be made of plastic and it will run on solar energy, making it less likely to malfunction or run out of power in a tense scenario.

"We call it a Dick Tracy watch," said Carl Taussig, director of information surfaces at HP Labs in Palo Alto, California, in a reference to the comic-strip detective whose high-tech wristwatch doubled as a two-way radio.

HP expects a prototype of the watch to be ready within a year.

The U.S. military plans to use the prototype with a small group of soldiers first before deciding whether to expand its use of the technology, Taussig said. The watch may eliminate the need for soldiers to carry cumbersome technological gear and backup batteries.

A U.S. Department of Defense spokeswoman said she was not familiar with the project, so it's unclear exactly how the watch would be used by the military.

HP makes the watch's display screen out of plastic, rather than the glass that is the norm for most computer displays on the market today.

"It doesn't break. It's thin. It's potentially flexible," Taussig said of the plastic display.

Flexible solar panels also will be printed onto the watches, using a technology developed by a company called PowerFilm. That company also has developed solar-powered tents for the military, according to its website.

All kinds of consumer electronics may start incorporating plastic instead of glass screens in coming years. The plastic screens have the advantages of being light, using less power and being less destructible. They also use 40 times less raw material than glass displays, Taussig said.

HP said its plastic-display technology could also be used in laptops, e-readers and commercial signs.

Other companies are working in this space, too.

More than 20 million flexible plastic displays are on the market today, according to Sriram Peruvemba, vice-president of marketing for E Ink, the company that developed the low-power display technology for the Amazon Kindle and many other e-book readers.

So far, all those screens are very small. "These go into wristwatches, they go into memory sticks, they go into shelf labels -- things like that," he said.

Peruvemba expects flexible plastic displays to get larger in coming years, to the point that they can be used in e-book readers and laptop computers.

Taussig said the military watch will be one of the first real-world tests of the technology. He expects the next commercial applications also to be relatively small in terms of screen sizes. Grocery stores, for example, may use plastic screens to display vegetable and fruit prices in the near future, he said.

The screens don't use much power, and store managers could update them more quickly than paper price tags, he said.

HP Labs has been developing a process to "print" the plastic display components for 10 years. The company originally intended to use the technology in portable memory drives, but creating larger screens out of plastic turned out to be a more economical and feasible venture, Taussig said.

The secret to the screens is in what's behind them: a thin strip of metal-coated plastic that's only 50 microns thick -- about half the width of a human hair -- and wraps around a spool.

That layer of material is printed with transistors, the components that tell the screen to display certain images. It is treated with various acid and metal coatings to make it conduct electricity and create clear images. In some ways, the system mimics newspaper production.

"We had to actually build all of the equipment to do this stuff, and that's because no one's ever done it before," Taussig said.