The Future of Display Technology
By the Casey Research Technology Team
The basic technology involved in delivering information in visual format (i.e., display technology) remained essentially unchanged for decades. Up until about the year 2000, whether you wanted to watch Monday Night Football on your TV or play SimCity on your PC, chances are you depended on a cathode ray tube (CRT). But in addition to being big, bulky power guzzlers, CRTs may also be deleterious to your general health. So consumers called for a revolution... and they got one.
In recent years, computer and TV screens have been reinvented over and over again at a dizzying speed. They've been made huge enough to serve a stadium full of football fans, and shrunk to the width of a cellphone. They give you better, sharper, more natural pictures, and they're more energy efficient. Chances are you have at least one flat-panel TV in your house.
First came plasma display panels (PDPs), the patent for which actually dates back to 1939, and then liquid crystal displays (LCDs), which quickly kicked their predecessor aside and came to dominate the display landscape. But PDPs and LCDs were only the beginning. And while those technologies are still improving (with 3D plasma TVs and LED backlit LCDs - also with 3D capabilities), it might not be long before they go the way of CRTs. Today, new technologies are poised to leapfrog the current standard with the promise of even thinner, lighter, more mobile, and more energy-efficient displays.
Organic Light-Emitting Diodes - OLEDs
As the name indicates, OLEDs derive their luminescence from organic molecules. Typically, the individual diode (a form of solid-state semiconductor) consists of two organic layers - one conductive, one emissive - sandwiched between the cathode and anode, with the whole package printed onto a suitable substrate that keeps the thing from falling apart.
The diodes in OLEDs are vanishingly small, between 100 and 500 nanometers in thickness (a human hair is 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers thick). But there's a lot - red, green, and blue light sources - packed in there.
Originally, OLEDs were created using small organic molecules, and this required an expensive manufacturing process called vacuum deposition. Since the early '90s, large organic molecules have usually been used. With these, the layers can quickly and easily be sprayed onto the substrate, in rows or columns, by an inkjet-like printer.
The result is a screen that can be scaled down to a thickness of a few millimeters. You'll be able to hang it on your wall and barely know it's there... or even stick it in your pocket.
No joke. OLEDs' ability to use a wide variety of materials for the substrate means that we're no longer going to be constrained by the limitations of glass. A flexible plastic screen could quite literally be rolled up and transported anywhere. And the multi-thumbed can take heart: Drop it and it doesn't shatter into a million pieces.
Sony's Prototype Vaio Notebook with Flexible OLED Screen
A further advantage is that - unlike LCDs - OLEDs don't require a backlight. This means they're more energy efficient (most of an LCD's power consumption goes into the backlight) and can render true deep blacks. They can achieve much higher contrast ratios, about 1,000,000:1. The refresh rate is 1,000 times quicker than with an LCD, making even the fastest motion blur-free. Distortion-free viewing angles are much greater. And eventually, bendable, transparent OLED screens could be stacked to produce 3D images.
One can even envision the newspaper of the future: an OLED that refreshes constantly with the latest news in real time. You could get the morning report on the ride to work (complete with visuals, of course, and audio - if it didn't overly annoy your seatmate), then you could fold it up and carry it around throughout the day in your briefcase, or slip it into your jacket pocket. Consult it whenever you like, wherever you happen to be. And get an end-of-day wrap-up on your way home.
OLEDs have been around for more than a decade but have only taken off within the past couple years. According to market research firm DisplaySearch, over 40 million active-matrix OLED phones shipped in 2010. And the technology is making its way into TVs too. Released in 2008, the Sony XEL-1 was the world's first OLED television. With the XEL-1 you got an 11-inch screen that's only 3 mm thick priced at around $2,500. It's still quite expensive to produce large screen OLEDs. But LG promises a 55-inch OLED TV in 2012. There's no word on how expensive this model might be but since the 31-inch model that is supposed to be released this year is rumored to be priced at $9,000, we wouldn't expect anything less than $15k for the 55-inch model.
One hot new display technology takes the issues of screen thickness and material composition out of the equation. It's a battery-powered, fully functional projector, capable of producing an image anywhere from 10 inches to 100 inches on a wall, ceiling, refrigerator door, or your forehead.
Dubbed Pico Projectors for their diminutive size (a picometer is 10^-12 or one-trillionth of a meter) compared to the common projectors of today, one of them will set you back anywhere from $100-$400. They can connect to a laptop, DVD player, video camera, still camera, smart phone, or iPad, and can decode all the popular formats, such as MPEG, JPEG, AVI, etc.
The first ones employed DLP technology with an LED light source replacing the high-intensity bulbs of larger projectors, but they suffered from low resolution, lack of brightness, mediocre color, and fuzziness in direct proportion to image size.
LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) brought some improvements. But the laser-based projectors - like Microvision's SHOWWX+ - provide better colors and sharper, always-in-focus images. In the future, these projectors will come embedded directly into your smartphone, negating the need for another physical device.
On the Horizon
These aren't the only new display technologies on the horizon. In startups and research labs around the world, scientists are continuing to develop entirely new, cheaper, smaller, faster, brighter, and more energy-efficient ways to display information. These include quantum-dot displays (QDLEDs), which combine the best of organic and inorganic LEDS; and laser phosphor displays (LPDs), which could represent the next generation of large-format digital displays thanks to their efficiency and low cost of ownership.
Of course, the future of display technology also includes multitouch functionality in all devices, or some other sensing technology that interprets how you want to interact with the information you're given. For a couple ideas of where we're headed, here's a demonstration by Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry from MIT displaying what their group calls "SixthSense." Lastly, just for fun, here's one more video about the future of display called A Day Made of Glass made possible by Corning. Obviously, it will take some time to get there, but the future of display does look exciting.
[Technology's expansion knows no bounds... but its profits do. Invest in the wrong company, or even the right company at the wrong time, and you could miss the boat completely. Don't let that happen to you; put our experts to work for you by subscribing now to Casey Extraordinary Technology. A ninety-day trial subscription is absolutely risk-free.]