Thursday, June 30, 2005

Flexible Displays – Coming Soon to an Application Near You

The other day I saw the scfi film “Minority Report” which is set in the year 2050 with Tom Cruise playing a cop in a world of hyper technology. At one point he sits down on a bus seat and picks up a newspaper. The page was a single sheet and as he read it, the image changed giving him a page view at a time. The year 2050 seems like quite a while to wait before using this technology. In fact, this technology may be coming to an application near you sooner than that.

As technology continues to shrink computers in size, the display becomes a bottleneck in achieving ever smaller, more convenient packaging. A flexible display – one that can be rolled up while not in use and then unrolled for viewing, is one approach under active development today.

Displays consist of a backplane for controlling the pixels and a front plane for controlling the light source. Typically silicon is used for the backplane so transistors can be etched into the surface. To achieve a flexible backplane, some companies make the transistors out of plastic. Wikipedia has a nice description of the technology here. Polymer Vision and Plastic Logic are two companies making transistors out of organic polymers which can be deposited on a plastic substrate with screen printing and ink jet technologies.

In traditional displays, such as LCDs, each pixel acts as a shutter for a separate light source. One solution to creating more flexible backplanes is to move away from LCD technology to electrophoretic techniques. E Ink pioneered the use of electrophoretic displays in which each pixel actually emits light. An electric charge turns a microcapsule from one side (colored black) to the other (colored white). They even have versions that can show video at 20 frames per second. This web page gives a clear overview of the technology. The drawback is they are slow and currently provide only black and white images.

Flexible displays are already in use in high-end TV sets, heads-up display systems in helicopters, and more. They are predicted to come to more mundane applications such as the one used in Minority Report– the newspaper. Will this obsolete the newspaper? Probably not. Instead it will consolidate their position. Such is the prediction of the president of Samsung in his address to the 58th World Newspaper Congress.

In addition to targeting paper-like mediums, researchers are also seeking to embed the display into clothing. Government funding is supporting research in this area so that displays could be integrated into soldier’s clothes.

As computers shrink and become more embedded in machines and tools, the ability to display information and provide input will become an important one.
If you are working with display technologies, I would like to hear from you. Please email me at hall.martin@ni.com
Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

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