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The Future of Screens: Why OLED Will Change Everything

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 10:39am

Design trends are influenced by both form and function, but also bow to limitations of existing technology. When we look back at flat-screen TVs compared to LCDs, then further to the bulky cathode ray tube (remember these?), it’s obvious we’ve come a long way. Within a few years, according to industry reps, we’ll say the same about store displays, vehicle lighting and kitchen countertops.

The new technology is aimed at revolutionizing both displays (i.e. TV or smartphone screens) and lighting. OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode, but since the light-producing technology is lightweight and can be applied to bendable surfaces, the term is often used to reference to flexible displays. The “cool” factor of this technology is still in its infancy, in part because most products that will utilize it remain in the minds of designers and haven’t yet hit store shelves. Once a few tech hurdles are overcome, there’s a gamut of new features you can expect to see.

The Basics

OLED is a series of organic films that, when activated with electricity, will emit light. Early work with OLED was done on glass — for example, the current line of Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones use OLED in the display, sandwiched between layers of glass.

In addition to glass, these organic cells can be coated onto plastic or foil, creating a display that is flexible — it can bend without cracking or breaking.

The light is powered with a low voltage current, below 14 volts, and is incredibly thin — 1.8 millimeters. OLED can be used in a personal device like a phone, or be applied to a large surface such as a wall — it won’t add bulk and won’t heat up the surface.

The Capabilities of OLED

In 2011, Philips did a collaboration with the Black Eyed Peas for a show in Paris. The outfits of the band members were integrated with OLED light panels, controlled remotely to display lighting sequences orchestrated with the set list.

It’s not only rock stars that find good use for OLED. The military is also an early adopter, using microdisplays made by eMagin for training. Microdisplays are 1×1 inches or smaller and used in a wireless headset so the user sees a 2D or 3D interface that changes as they look left to right. The headsets are fairly lightweight and therefore easily portable. eMagin is beginning to apply the same technology for gaming, in which wearing the headsets would replace looking at a screen.

Another place OLEDs replace screens is for veterinarians, who could be on-site giving an ultrasound to cattle or sheep — viewing the ultrasound on a headset is much handier than looking over at a screen, a representative from eMagin said.

What Consumers Can Get Excited About

As a light source, OLED promises to be not only a lighter and thinner option, but also transparent. This means your car roof could be a window, letting in sunlight during the day, and at night, the same surface could turn into a light that comes on when the door is ajar. On a glass storefront, a lighted sign could display a sale, but would be transparent when turned off.

Offices could feature windows that bring in sunshine during the day and turn into lights in the evening, and other office lighting could be integrated into furniture or walls, rather than the ceiling. Car tail lights could also be replaced with OLED, allowing them to emit the same brightness with less bulk, so industrial designers of cars could make better use of the space or just provide consumers with a bigger trunk. At a recent conference, the Philips team used OLED-lighted nametags powered by batteries.

Innovation in lighting is great, but the real game-changer is when OLED is used on a flexible surface for a bendable device. “The first benefit will be thinner and lightweight, less breakable displays,” say Janice Mahon, VP of Technology Commercialization at Universal Display Corporation.

She describes what industry insiders call a “universal communication device,” which is essentially a pen, but with a display that rolls in and out. It seems our aspirations are towards forever smaller devices.

The Challenges Thus Far

It will be roughly 3-4 years before OLED lighting makes it to the mass market, according to a representative from Philips. For flexible displays (such as the ultimate pen), companies including Samsung are working to bring the technology to the marketplace. But a few hurdles remain.

First, OLED must be protected from air and moisture. It can be sandwiched between layers of glass, but for a flexible display it will need to be layered inside plastic, so an impermeable coating must be developed to protect the display. Second, the high-temperature processing that places the OLED on the backplane will melt most plastics.

But many believe that OLED has potential to be cheaper than LCD in the future.

For now, OLED is limited to niche use cases. Designers able to get their hands on it, though, prove the form and function of OLED is something to be desired. Check out this video by Philips, displaying light installations done in collaboration with designers.

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October 03, 2012

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