BOSTON - The founders of Zink Imaging LLC believe they have two great ideas in one absolute show-stopper. They’ve created a portable device that makes it ultraconvenient to print photos from digital cameras and phones. And they designed it to use no ink.
That’s not to say “hardly any ink,” mind you, but zero ink — shorten that and you get “Zink.” Instead, the device uses heat to activate minuscule dye crystals embedded in the photo paper.
Not bad for a device roughly the size of an iPod. No wonder founder and CEO Wendy Caswell proclaims that Zink “delivers a magical user experience.”
Though months away from store shelves, the product is expected to be among the hottest items unveiled today and Thursday at the influential DEMO technology show in Palm Desert, Calif.
DEMO is notable because it focuses on emerging technologies and gives their creators just six minutes on stage to explain themselves to a ballroom of investors, analysts and journalists. Past shows have pointed to such trends as sharing photos and blogging.
The show’s producer, Chris Shipley, said she doesn’t seek particular technology themes in advance. But invariably she notices threads coming together after the exhibitors have passed their auditions and the participant list is assembled. And one of those key topics this year will be ways to enhance the power of mobile technologies.
The ideas will come mainly from companies you’ve never heard of — such as Buz Interactive, which lets cell phone users incorporate licensed music clips into voice mail greetings — and a few larger tech players.
One of them, Seagate Technology LLC, will use DEMO to introduce a small wireless drive that can store files downloaded over cell phone networks. The product — named DAVE — has to be within 30 feet of a cell phone to serve as its storage annex, using Bluetooth wireless technology. It also works over Wi-Fi or a USB cord to do the same trick with computers. Expected to come out this summer, a 10-gigabyte version should retail for about $150.
Rob Pait, Seagate’s director of consumer electronics marketing, contends that DAVE will help turn cell-phone networks into souped-up sources of music and other fancy content. Short video clips, ring tones and little games are mainly what people download now because most cell phones can’t store very much.
“You’ve got a lot of bandwidth available to you,” Pait said. “Now people need a place to download the content to.”
Zink similarly could help people get more out of the wireless world, although its inkless printing system isn’t necessarily for mobile devices only. It’s just debuting that way.
Based in Waltham, Mass., Zink was founded in 2005, when private investors acquired many of Polaroid Corp.’s key technologies and researchers shortly after that company emerged from bankruptcy.
Zink’s special sauce is the photo paper, which has multiple layers of dye crystals inside and a transparent, protective coat on the outside. The dye crystals are normally colorless but produce a color when they melt.
Cyan (a kind of blue), magenta and yellow crystals — each activated by applying different levels of heat for different lengths of time — are enough to reproduce the full color spectrum. About 100,000 pulses of heat come every second, which means a 2-by-3-inch print rolls out in less than a minute.
Although fax machines and other devices have employed aspects of thermal printing technology before, Zink has mastered ways to incorporate it into an inexpensive yet longlasting format.
“It allows us to put printers where they’ve never been able to go before,” Caswell said.
Zink plans to partner with electronics makers that would build the technology into handheld printers, which could be linked with or without wires to cell phones and digital cameras. Or some partners might make new hybrid digital cameras that have the printers already integrated, the way Polaroid did with film.
There are no such partners yet, but Zink expects whoever they are will be able to make the little camera phone companion for about $100 and the integrated camera and printer for $200. Zink plans to make its money on the paper: 20 cents a page, or a 10-pack for $2.
Zink will initially target the quick-shoot pictures that people tend to take with camera phones, but that market alone could be big. The NPD Group research firm says 69 percent of mobile phones sold in December had a built-in camera, up from 51 percent at the start of 2006. And earlier research by NPD found that about 80 percent of the pictures taken with phones just sit there — neither sent to anyone else nor printed.