For now, and the near future, the LCD’s rule as the display technology of choice for portable devices is relatively unthreatened but developing technologies are only a few years from trying to stage a coup. On Friday, at a display industry event, Sony and Philips unveiled bleeding-edge display technology breakthroughs that may lead the charge for next-generation devices in the form of ultra-thin, bendable displays.
The Phillips announcement, which was limited to words and a photograph, captured modest press attention. The Sony news, which was also revealed in a Japanese video showcasing the technology, has been burning up the wire services.
Sony’s video press release showcased a 2.5in prototype of an “Electronic Paper” display. It has a screen that measures in at a tiny .01 inch (.3mm) thickness. Layered on a plastic, instead of glass, the display is so thin, in fact, that unlike LCD or Plasma TV technologies, the Sony prototype can be bent into curves yet still show high quality full motion video content. (The Philips prototype offers similar abilities).
At its core, the Sony display uses what’s called an OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology along with several innovations. The OLED technology which uses organic materials printed onto a thin film doesn’t require any kind of backlight to function (compared to an LCD) and as a result can be made far thinner.
Possible futuristic applications include ultra thin portable video devices that could look like they were imagined out of the archives of science fiction. Your desk could double as another computer monitor. A video phone, right out of Star Trek, could be possible. The ability to bend the screen makes even embedding video into clothing, bags or other non-tech products a possibility.
The flexibility of the display (literal flexibility) will give product designers new forms to work with when making everything from cell phones to automotive GPS displays. A GPS screen bent to match the curve of a car’s dashboard, for example, could be made, and the need for no backlight means significant space in the dash would not have to be used to power the screen.
It’ll be a while before any space age products start to use Sony, or Phillips, technologies. Making the displays bigger, more durable and sufficiently inexpensive to mass produce may be difficult. With durability, the lifespan of the organic compounds used for the display presents an area of some concern. OLED’s currently work fine for occasional use screens like those used on cell phones, but monitors with frequent video use might have too short a shelf-life relative to their cost. As an additional challenge, the companies will also have to insure that images or videos displayed on a curved screen won’t be so foreign looking to viewers, or be distorted in such a way, that they prove unpalatable.
Both Sony and Philips will be facing heavy competition in the form of other Electronic Paper (or Ultra Thin Display) technologies being researched and developed in other high tech labs, including at Hewlett Packard which has been experimenting with both rigid and flexible screens.
However long off commercial applications turn out to be, these announcements mark the beginning of a slow shift from the laboratory to the manufacturing facility for new display technologies. These announcements also calibrated the timer on an arms race of sorts between Tech giants: they’ll all be rushing to get these technologies working, and to market, first. That’s good for consumers … and gadget freaks.