THINK ABOUT a world where you can print photos without ink, a printer cartridge or a big printer sitting alongside your computer. That's thepromise of Zink Imaging, a Waltham, Mass., startup whose name suggests its bold goal: zero ink.
Zink is just one of 68 companies presenting new products at DEMO, a conference in Palm Desert that started Tuesday and runs through Thursday. But its potential for shaking things up makes it stand out from the companies that have briefed me on their announcements.
A spinoff from Polaroid, Zink announced Tuesday a novel printing technology that could lead to a new category of devices. The company's scientists have been working for about five years to develop a special kind of photo paper that needs no ink. That means they don't need expensive printer housings or cartridges, either. That would allow Zink to embed printers into portable devices such as digital cameras or into accessories for cell phone cameras.
Zink printers work differently from inkjet and laser printers. While inkjet and lasers form colored dots on paper by passing over spots several times, Zink printers heat up a printing element and roll the plastic paper past the print head just once. Zink prints a 2-by-3-inch picture in 30 seconds -- somewhat slower than inkjet printers -- that comes out dry. It brings back the instant gratification of 1970s-era Polaroid picture, without forcing you to wait for it to develop. And it's a much better quality print than Polaroids were.
With Zink devices, the plastic paper has layers of plastic in the middle with millions of tiny crystal dyes that can be activated by heat. If you heat the paper a certain amount, the dyes melt and you get yellow. If you heat it less but for a slightly longer time, you get magenta. If you heat it a little less and slightly longer, you get cyan. Those colors can be mixed to print any color. If you think of microwaving a frozen dinner, you get the idea.
The trick is in applying the right amount of heat to each part of the paper to produce the color in precise locations. Wendy Caswell, chief executive of the company, says it has more than 100 patents issued or pending.
So far, Zink can't print on regular paper. So the Hewlett-Packards and Canons of the world don't have to shudder. Those players could license this technology if they wanted to extend their products into new areas.
The company is targeting ways to extend printing to places where it's never reached before. In the second half of the year, Caswell says, one partner will launch a digital camera with a built-in Zink photo printer. Another will launch a small iPod-size accessory that can print 2-by-3-inch photos from a camera phone. It has working models of the camera phone accessory printer that it will show at its booth at DEMO.
Steve Hoffenberg, director of consumer imaging research at market researcher Lyra Research in Newton, Mass., says the technology is unique and Zink is thinking smart by targeting markets that the current printers don't serve. He says the print quality, of which he has seen samples, is good enough for consumers but falls short for professionals. "The big question is if there is market demand in portable printing for someone who wants prints immediately," Hoffenberg said.
Zink plans to create an overall brand marketing campaign to raise awareness among consumers. That won't be cheap for a startup. We're already taking pictures on our cell phones by the millions, but most of those just sit on the phones and never make it to paper.
Zink was formed in October 2005 as a spinoff from Polaroid. It has 67 employees. Its motto has been: If you can eliminate ink from printing, you can make your life simpler.
At the moment, a 4-by-6-inch print costs Zink about 80 cents to print, roughly three to 10 times as expensive as inkjet prints. Part of the reason is that it is taking the ink from the cartridge and embedding it in every part of the paper, making the paper more expensive. But over time, Zink hopes to drive down costs.