Writing technology has resisted fundamental innovations since the oldest known cave paintings some 60,000 years ago. Whether you’re rendering your bison hunt or jotting a phone number, you’re probably scraping pigment onto a surface.
But in fact there are scientists pushing the horizons of writing. And some of the most important research is taking place in Kent using liquid crystal displays.
Late last year, the storied Kent Displays company rolled out its latest product in a line of writing tablets powered by one of nature’s intermediate states of nature: a liquid that can form crystals like a solid. The company’s new VersaNotes are an offspring of the popular Boogie Board and positioned as an environmentally friendly challenge to 3M’s Post-It Note.
“This truly is revolutionary for us, and in the market there’s literally nothing like this that exists anywhere,” said Hunter Morris, vice president of product strategy and marketing at Kent Displays.
Liquid crystals have a wide range of applications, from the familiar blinking numbers on an alarm clock to the bizarre herding of bacteria. Most people recognize liquid crystal displays, or LCDs, from their televisions or digital wristwatches.
Much of the research that spawned the liquid crystal display industry happened at Kent State after the pioneering physicist Glenn H. Brown started an institute for studying them.
One of Brown’s successors at the head of the Liquid Crystal Institute was William Doane. In 1993, Doane partnered with a venture capitalist, William Manning, to commercialize liquid crystal tech and founded Kent Displays.
In 2009, Kent Displays launched its first consumer product, Boogie Board, the e-writer that put the company on the map.
Boogie Board works thanks to the unique properties of a certain type of liquid crystals that can be jostled into one of two states: planar and focal conic.
When spread out over a surface and coaxed into the focal conic state with a small jolt of electricity, the liquid crystals allow light to pass through them. But when you apply pressure to the surface, such as with a stylus, it leaves a trail of planar-textured liquid crystals, which reflect light. To erase what you’ve written, press a small button to zap the crystals back to the focal conic position.
Kent Displays invented this writing apparatus but also developed an efficient way to manufacture it in Portage County. They’ve been cranking out Boogie Boards ever since, selling them in different shapes and sizes for offices, schools and homes.
VersaNotes is the next generation of Kent Displays’ writing products. While Boogie Boards are stiff and thick enough to carry a battery inside them, VersaNotes are thinner than an original floppy disk and floppier.
There’s no battery in the VersaNotes. Instead, the voltage is contained in the stylus, called a VersaPen. To erase your writing, you tap the stylus to a port in one corner of a VersaNote. They’re slightly bigger than a standard Post-It and have a magnetic rather than adhesive edge.
“We’re seeing a lot more interest in the last couple of years of people concerned with sustainability and reusability,” Morris said. “So we’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time and offering a solution for those people that are looking for alternatives to single-use items.”
Nithya Venkataraman, vice president of product development and management at Kent Displays, said she used to be a sticky note person but switched to VersaNotes.
“I never realized how many pieces of paper I was throwing away until I started using our products,” she said.
They said sales of VersaNotes have exceeded expectations and were their most popular product over the holidays. Last month, Kent Displays released the latest iteration, a black-colored VersaNotes that features higher contrast.
Venkataraman and Morris said the technology behind VersaNotes opens up the possibility for new products that don’t require a built-in battery. If you have a VersaPen, it can work with any Versa writing surface.
They said the company will be adding more smart tech and kids products in the future.
“This is a world where parents and kids alike need distraction-free, unplugged experiences that are still involving some technologies,” Morris said.
Correction: An earlier headline said the VersaNotes was the first new e-writer since the Boogie Board. In fact, Kent Displays has released other reusable writing products since the Boogie Board.