Adding illumination to e-paper screens seems pretty counter-intuitive - after all, what makes the display technology special is that it looks like paper and doesn't need backlighting - but that's just what Qualcomm has done with its latest mirasol prototype. It makes sense, too, The Digital Reader discovered when Qualcomm whipped out the ereader mock-up at CES On The Hill this week; rather than backlighting the display, the new mirasol model actually has an embedded front light.
That basically integrates one of those clip-on LED reading lights you see for Amazon's Kindle and other ereaders, allowing you to read them in the dark. Unlike a clip-on, however, Qualcomm's system more evenly illuminates the full display, and of course doesn't extend from the body of the ereader itself.
As you can see from the two mirasol prototypes above - new on the left, old on the right - it makes a big difference to the color e-paper tech. In brighter light the illumination could be shut off to save power, but it makes for a more flexible ereader having the system onboard. Qualcomm is apparently readying a new version with an ambient light sensor, that would automatically fire up the LEDs when they're needed.
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait a little longer to see these panels show up in commercial ereaders, as word from Qualcomm is that the first products aren't expected until fall 2011. Still no definitive word on which OEMs have picked up the display technology.