Consumers hoping to enjoy their favorite comics or Harry Potter book in digital form could soon have a flexible alternative to clunky laptop computers.

A group of innovative firms is developing a new generation of thin electronic displays, or e-paper , that need no added light source to read, eliminating power-gobbling backlighting used in LCDs that now dominate the notebook computing market.

Unlike LCDs, once the power is off, e-paper images remain unchanged on the screen.

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Taiwan's Prime View International Co. Ltd., one maker of flexible electronic paper displays for e-books, and other niche display makers such as Britain's Plastic Logic Ltd. are among those developing such next-generation screens.

"It's a niche product right now but we think it will become popular gradually," PVI President Y.S. Fu told Reuters at a new product conference during Computex , the world's No.2 PC fair.

Using thin sheet steel topped with another layer of circuits, then a thin film of digital ink, e-paper is already in the market in handheld e-books that allow hundreds of books to be downloaded onto them via the Internet, and cell phones whose screen won't break when dropped.

The bright future has caught the eyes of investors at a time when major large-screen makers are struggling. In Taipei, shares of PVI, which supplies monochrome displays for Sony Corp.'s (SNE) e-books, surged to an all-time high this week.

Traditional liquid crystal displays (LCDs) used for computers and flat-screen TVs are rigid since they use backlights to light up images on the their screen. But e-paper uses a plastic substrate, rather than glass, giving it flexibility, analysts say.

The new e-paper displays could pop up on many other electronic gadgets very soon, supporters say. One day, versions of newspaper and magazine readers that are updated wirelessly might be rolled up or folded, and carried like a piece of paper, for instance.

Plastic Logic plans to start making e-paper displays next year. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and LG.Philips LCD Co. Ltd., which dominate the large LCD market, also launched A4-sized color flexible display last month.

The idea of digital paper has been around for many years and is getting closer to a reality. But many developers have only recently introduced prototypes of e-paper displays and it might take a while to see products hit the market.

"The most difficult part is they have to develop many raw materials, so the market won't take off within three years," said Kevin Liao, an analyst at market researcher DisplaySearch.

Global revenue of flexible displays is projected to reach $3 million-$5 million this year, much smaller than $74 billion for large LCDs, according to DisplaySearch. But revenue for flexible displays could balloon to $766 million in 2010, it said.