The Flexible Future of Displays

Carl Weinschenk

For many people, current events are not particularly enjoyable. So why shouldn't they turn their attention to the future? Flexible video screens will be a big part of that future, and they are not as far off as one might expect. The Motley Fool does a good job of imagining some uses of the new technology, and points to a prototype device made by LG and L-3 Display Systems.

 

The U.S. Army and Arizona State University are two of the drivers in the field. In this case, one (flexible) picture truly is worth a thousand words, and that picture can be found at CNET. The story, which also is interesting, says that the army is doubling its $50 million investment in the Flexible Display Center at ASU. The considerable coolness factor isn't that only thing in play here. It's smart to remember that the armed forces don't do things just to be cool, and it's also a good idea to remember that some of the best technology-including the Internet itself-has deep military roots. In this case, the army wants to enable troops to more easily receive and use information while in the field. So far, one product-the Soldier Flex PDA from Inhand Electronics-has been introduced for this purpose.


Flexible displays-which the piece describes as paper-thin electronic screens -- can be manipulated in a number of ways, including being sewn into clothing. In addition to one other academic institution-Lehigh University-backers of the center at ASU comprise an interesting array of companies that clearly have commercial designs on the concept: Boeing, E Ink, Hewlett-Packard, LG, Raytheon and Plextronics.


Unidym, a company in Meno Park, CA, is reported by PC World and others to be planning to commercialize flexible displays this year. Its approach will use carbon nanotubes instead of the indium tin oxide (ITO) sheets used in LCDs today. Indeed, the story says that nanotubes could eventually displace ITOs in stationary LCDs because they are cheaper. Samsung, the story says, displayed a nanotube e-paper device last October. The writer says that Sony is working with organic light emitting displays (OLEDs), though that is a relatively expensive approach.


The core of HP's approach is called the Self-Aligned Imprint Lithography (SAIL) process. In addition to a great name for a site, The Future of Things offers a relatively arcane description of the technology and other elements what HP -- along with the Flexible Display Center -- are up to. The central explanation in the piece assumes a certain level of scientific understanding. The bottom line, however, is clear: SAIL and the other elements of the process enable images to be maintained even when no voltage is applied. The story quotes an iSuppli analyst as saying that the flexible display market will grow from $8 million in 2007 to $2.8 billion in 2013. Possible uses are electronic paper and signage, notebooks, smartphones and other electronic devices, the story says.


This is an extremely well written-it's in the Economist, after all-description of flexible displays. The most interesting element is that what the publication cites as the two biggest remaining challenges have nothing to do with flexibility itself. That obstacle, apparently, already has been overcome. Instead, the limitations are that to data refresh rates are not fast enough to display motion and that the displays are in black and white (fine for books, not great for movies). There is little doubt, the writer says, that the two problems will be solved. The advantages flexible displays already enjoy are that they are less difficult and expensive to make and require less energy to operate.

 

It will be a while before we have the kinds of flexible video newspapers that were seen in the film Minority Report. But, with the present looking so dour, it's fun to look ahead.



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