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Next digital screen could fold like paper

Scientists tinker with displays for books, clothing, and military gadgets that are as thin as newsprint and as durable as fabric.

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Clothing for travelers or soldiers that alters color to fit the environment. Books that change content on request. Computer displays so thin they can be manufactured on a roll and cut to size like kitchen foil. Even paper that emits sounds or can be erased and reused thousands of times.

These aren't the smart gadgets of fictional spy movies: They are applications of emerging electronic-display technologies. And some will hit the market as early as this year. Technologists hope the new displays will usher in an era in which users drop clunky screens for flexible, portable ones so thin they can be rolled up like a newspaper. The benefits of the new gadgets are obvious: One such display could replace stacks of books that weigh down a vacationer's suitcase or a student's backpack and provide content that can be updated instantly.

Even a soldier's uniform could function as a flexible display by automatically changing color to camouflage him as he walks from the jungle onto a dirt road. Likewise, a businesswoman's suit could switch from navy blue to white as she travels from a cold to a warm climate, reducing the outfits she must pack.

While many of these scenarios are at least 10 years away, precursor products such as "smart" papers and ultra-thin glass displays are poised to show up in 2004. In Japan, Sony Corp. and Matsushita Electric Corp. plan to start selling electronic books (e-books) the size of DVD cases early this year.

Since their debut in the mid-90s, e-books have earned notoriety for being hefty, expensive, and not interchangeable among publishers. The new versions promise to be lighter, easier to use, and eventually less expensive.

"In Japan, a large percentage of the population spends hours each day commuting on trains. Europeans also purchase large volumes of reading material," says Michael McCreary of E Ink Corp., a Cambridge, Mass., electronic-ink (e-ink) company that uses technology developed at MIT's Media Lab. "Japan is a good market to start in, but this will go worldwide."

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