Science fiction writers of the 1960s such as Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick envisioned fantastic ways of using (or abusing) video images. They foresaw things like flat TV screens that take up entire walls and transparent 3D video images that bend and wrap or float in mid-air. Many of Dick's visions are currently on display in the latest sci-fi flick from Steven Spielberg, Minority Report. The movie depicts wall-sized video billboards and video screens on cereal boxes, for example, and it is giving the general public a preview of video display technologies just around the corner, says Janice Mahon, vice president of technology commercialization for Universal Display Corporation (UDC). The movie is set about 50 years in the future, but according to Mahon, the future it depicts is a mere five years ahead.
Mahon's small New Jersey firm is on the forefront of OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) technology development and is actively working on applications that make the stuff in Minority Report seem old-fashioned. Among the science-fictionish applications Universal Display is pursuing are the following: a video screen so small and flexible that it rolls up inside a pen as if it were a tiny window shade; glowing wallpaper that turns entire walls into illumination sources, replacing light bulbs; flexible video screens that fit in shirt cuffs; video screens embedded in car windshields; wall-sized video murals; rollup, daily-refreshable electronic newspapers; office windows, walls, and partitions that double as computer screens; and computer-conrolled price displays for supermarket shelves.
Organic Light-Emitting Diodes are widely regarded as the successor to LCDs due to their bright vibrant colors, full viewing angles, and low-power efficiency. The term "organic" refers to the carbon-based molecules that the technology uses in place of the metals or silicon used by other technologies such as LED and LCD. Universal Display's Janice Mahon compares an OLED screen to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "The peanut butter and jelly are the organic carbon-based layers and the bread is the glass or plastic substrate," she says. OLED is similar to LCD (which is also sandwich-like), but OLED's organic materials glow when tiny electric currents are run through them, thus eliminating the backlighting that LCDs require. OLEDs have fewer process steps and also use both fewer and lower-cost materials than LCD displays.
Universal Display has actually been working on several different versions of OLED technology, including: phosphorescent OLED (PHOLED), stacked OLED (SOLED), and transparent OLED (TOLED). PHOLED is the most mature of the three and has already shown up in a cell phone from Samsung. SOLED stacks red, green, and blue pixels on top of one another instead of next to one another as is done in CRTs and LCDs. This improves resolution up to three-fold and enhances full-color quality. TOLED embeds OLED technology in thin, transparent glass or plastic substrates and promises a plethora of inexpensive applications.
Some Futures Are Closer than Others
Janice Mahon says that while she believes the ability to display images on wall-sized screens will eventually make video projection obsolete, the industry is safe for the near term. The technology to create cheap, wall-sized displays is a bit farther off than some of the other OLED applications. "This technology will not directly compete with projection technology today," says Mahon. "Current OLED screens aren't bright enough or big enough yet. It'll be a number of years until we can get images that big." She guesses the number of years will be three to five. Meanwhile, the company will seek to commercialize other applications of OLED technology. "We have to learn to crawl before we learn to walk," Mahon says. "There's a lot we still have to learn and there's a lot the manufacturers have to learn about how to produce this technology more economically."
Universal Display promises to give manufacturers a leg-up, however. The company has devised a manufacturing process called organic vapor phase deposition (OVPD). Being developed in conjunction with German manufacturer Aixtron AG, the OVPD process allows very thin layers of organic materials to be deposited on a substrate with great precision. OVPD promises to make it possible to manufacture plastic substrate OLED displays in continuous rolls as if it were wallpaper.
Mahon says OLED technology will show up first in small portable devices like PDAs, cell phones, and laptops. In fact, the first practical commercial use of Universal Display's OLED technology was announced by Samsung in May. At that time, Samsung showed a cell phone employing a 2.2-inch screen from UDC. The screen is a high-efficiency full-color (QCIF) active matrix organic light emitting device (AMOLED). Commenting during the unveiling of the phone, Dr. H.K. Chung, senior vice president of Samsung SDI, bragged, "The power consumption of this UDC display is 50% less than a comparable fluorescent OLED display and 20% less than a similar backlight LCD."
Mahon sees the cell phone market as a big one for her company, even though the U.S. doesn't have the 3G-style bandwidth necessary to enable video transmission over cell phones. And it probably won't for "another five years or so," she says. But Japan and the Pacific Rim countries do have 3G phones, and video messaging is very popular there, she says. UDC will sell to that market until the U.S. catches up.
Universal Display has also entered into a "joint development agreement" with Sony to develop OLED technology for use in TVs and desktop PC monitors. "This will essentially take the place of the flat Trinitron," Mahon says. Regarding a time frame for the introduction of OLED monitors, she says Sony expects this to happen "around 2004."
Mahon says there is also a huge potential market in the automobile industry. She envisions car dashboard instrument panels being made of plastic embedded with OLED displays and even navigation system displays built into the windshield glass. Mahon also foresees OLED's use in potential applications in the aircraft industry, not to mention a host of military applications, such as heads-up displays built into helmet face shields.
OLED's low power consumption will make it particularly useful in portable devices, including small computer-based devices that either attach to are incorporated into clothing—so called "wearable" devices. "OLED technology will enable all kinds of wearable computers and electronic devices," says Mahon, "and wearables will change the way we carry around information."
Mahon also predicts that OLED will eventually be "a major player in the field of HDTV." Indeed, why would consumers buy big, heavy, finicky projection systems when they could have huge, flat TV screens in their walls?
In fact, in August, Dupont held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at an OLED production line just completed in Hsinchu, Taiwan. The high-volume manufacturing plant will produce polymer-based OLED flat-panel display modules. Dupont has licensed polymer-based OLED technology from Cambridge Display Technologies. At first, the Dupont facility will only be manufacturing single-color passive matrix displays, but by the end of 2003 will be producing multi- and full-color displays. The facility will initially have 50 employees but plans to expand to 115. DuPont expects to be sending production line samples to customers for a variety of applications in Q4 2002 and ramping up to full commercial mass production in 2003.
Of course, if you really want the ultimate home entertainment system, you'd probably do well not to wait for OLED walls. Even Mahon doesn't expect to see them for about five years, but there seems little doubt that such walls will soon exist. After all, small, 37-employee Universal Display Corporation is not the only company developing OLED. Giants like Kodak, DuPont, and Dow Chemical also have OLED development efforts under way. The technology is not likely to be a flash in the pan—it has too many potential applications, too many advantages, and too many backers. Plus, it promises to be cheap. So get ready for the fabulous video displays of the science fiction future. That future will be here tomorrow.