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Sony Reader

Research Report by
Lisa Swanstrom
(created 5/19/06; version 1.0)

Related Categories: New Reading Interfaces

Original Object for Study description

Slated to debut in the spring of 2006, the Sony Reader marks a key example of the next generation of commercial eBooks. While previous eBooks suffered criticism for their bulky appearances, hard-to-read screens, and limited availability of downloadable works, Sony claims to have resolved these problems through its use of new technologies that include e-ink, “electronic paper,” and a “CONNECT store” from which customers can purchase various downloadable texts. At the time of this writing, the product has not yet been released, but the pre-release reviews of the Reader have been extremely positive across a variety of technology-centered forums.

The Sony Reader (the Sony® Portable Reader System PRS-500) will launch some time in the spring of 2006. With it, Sony aims to be among the first corporations to make a truly portable and reader-friendly eBook. While Sony is well known for being a leader in the area of entertainment industry and computer systems, the Reader may well secure Sony’s reputation as a forerunner in the field of digital technologies related to reading digital works–at least, if the claims made on the Reader’s web site are accurate. In contrast to previous incarnations of eBooks (electronic books), which were marked by cumbersome physical dimensions, hard-to-read LCDs, and limited downloadable documents (among other problems), the Sony Reader boasts an impressive portability, battery life, and legibility. As the copy on the product’s web pages states:

“The Sony® Reader offers a new and convenient digital reading experience. It boasts an amazing screen with technology that rivals text on paper. Weighing less than 9 ounces158 and at only ½” thin,159 it’s more compact than many paperbacks. Plus, it comes with software that seamlessly allows you to search and browse thousands of electronic book titles from the Connect® eBookstore and then easily transfer from your PC to your Sony Reader.190 With built-in memory and multi-format support, you can take many of your favorite titles and documents with you. So compact and convenient, you’ll want to take it everywhere.” (from the web site.)

The Sony Reader comes packaged with software that provides “seamless” communication between the Reader and the Connect Bookstore, a Sony-owned clearinghouse from which users can access online works. Once the software is activated, the user is able to download (for a fee) a great variety of information from the site, not only in the form of books, articles, and other originally printed matter, but also in the form of RSS feeds, Blogs, and other digitally “born” works.

Research Context:
In addition to having many interesting implications for those who study the development of reading practices in the contemporary moment, the Sony Reader is well situated in the study of the evolution of reading interfaces throughout the history of the book. Additionally, its innovative use of new technology to both make eBooks more portable and reading digital works more “pleasurable” is well suited for study within the research field of haptic features of new media technology.

Technical Analysis:
In terms of its technical specifications, the Sony Reader is most remarkable for its use of E Ink, a technology that offers higher resolution than that of CRT (cathode-ray tube) or LCD (liquid crystal display) technologies.

“The Sony® Reader’s display uses E Ink® – a significant improvement over CRT and LCD technology. Instead of rows of glowing cells, E Ink® microcapsules actually appear as either black or white depending on a positive or negative charge determined by the content. The result is a reading experience that’s similar to paper – high contrast, high resolution, viewable in direct sunlight and at a nearly 180-degree angle, and requiring no power to maintain the image. In other words, it’s a screen that, like you, is well read.” (from the web site.)

Additionally, Sony’s use of a page-sized, six-inch display, which Sony refers to as “electronic paper,” is significant for its clarity and book-like appearance. The high resolution (170 pixels per inch) and lightweight (9 ounces) physical dimensions of the object are also noteworthy in that they set a new standard of portability for the eBook. The reader also boasts an impressive storage capacity, which can hold up to 80 standard e-books at once, as well as a battery life of up to “7,500 page turns on one charge.”

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Site:
The Sony Reader eBook is well worth the attention of the Transliteracies Project for a variety of reasons. In the first place, since one of the central objectives of this project is to improve the experience of reading digital works, the Sony Reader’s emphasis on clarity of display and ease of portability aligns well with our goal. Secondly, since the Sony Reader attempts to mimic the appearance of traditionally printed works with its E Ink and “electronic paper,” it challenges us to consider both the benefits and disadvantages of emulating older modes of the book within this new reading medium, as well as what the eBook can do that the printed book cannot–and vise versa. For example, while clear benefits of the Reader in contrast to traditional book forms include its portability and memory, one potential disadvantage of the eBook might have to do with practices of annotation, in that the Reader does not seem to readily accommodate markup in the current version, while printed works do.

Finally, the terminology surrounding the device itself is quite interesting and raises some very interesting questions. For example, if the Sony Reader is the “reader,” and the human reader is the “user,” there is a slippage here that occurs in meaning of the word “reader.” Typically–although obviously not exhaustively or exclusively–defined as a human activity performed with an object (a book, for example), “reading” here is something done by the hardware which displays digital texts. While this is, in part, a tongue-and-cheek use of the term that most likely has its genesis in marketing strategy, it nevertheless introduces an important philosophical question for us to consider: is reading an online or digital work an exclusively human activity? Or must reading now be understood as a system of interaction between a variety of human and non-human agents?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the Sony Reader eBook offers an intriguing object for study by the Transliteracies Project. Not only does it offer a fascinating chapter in the history of the printed word, standing as it does in sharp contrast to traditional, cloth-bound books, it also offers the user a seemingly unprecedented online reading experience which is tactile, soft on the eyes, and easy to tote around. Whether it is ultimately successful as a business enterprise or not, the Sony Reader offers a significant reconfiguration of a traditional reading interface, and is therefore an object well worthy of study by the Transliteracies Project.

Resources for Further Study:

  tl, 06.14.06

One Response to Sony Reader

  1. Publications | swanstream says:

    [...] reading. The Internet Archive “esc for escape” Google Print Inform.com “The Legible City” Sony Reader “Reading as [...]