There’s one sure thing about consumer technology: Whatever you buy is going to be outdated before you’re back in the market.
Music listeners have had it pretty rough over the years. They’ve gone from record, to cassette, to CD, to digital.
Home theater fans have had it even worse.
They have gone from standard definition screens to 720p to 1080i to 1080p to 3D to 4K. They’ve had cathode ray tubes, projection screens, plasma screens, and LCD screens. Let’s not forget VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and HD-DVD.
The next disruption in display technologies is expected to be OLED, or organic light emitting diode screens. Unlike the current crop of flatscreen TVs, which require a backlight to illuminate the screen, the pixels in OLED screens are lights themselves. Because they don’t require a big backlight and diffuser to be visible, they can be made into paper-thin, flexible displays that are visible under all lighting conditions.
They’ve been on the market for a couple of years, but have carried a hefty price tag because they cost so much produce.
But a couple of advances in OLED production have been revealed that will ultimately drive down the price in OLED production, making them cheaper and more common than they currently are.
Making them Faster and more Cheaply
A five-year old California company called Kateeva has built a machine that changes the way OLED screens are manufactured.
OLED screens are made in a fashion somewhat like multi-color silkscreening. A stencil blocks out the areas where certain organic compounds will be applied, and they’re stacked layer by layer through the process of vaporization. The first problem with this process is that it must be done in a vacuum, the second problem is that materials are wasted when they’re applied to the stenciled-out areas.
Kateeva’s process utilizes inkjet print nozzles to apply the relevant materials, so that stencils are no longer needed and resources are not wasted.
Kateeva says its machine, called YIELDjet, can produce OLED screens at a rate ten times faster than current production allows, that it decreases production downtime, and that it decreases particle contamination to which OLEDs are susceptible.
Getting Rid of the Expensive Components
OLEDs work because an organic layer of semiconductors glows when an electrical current is applied. To improve the reliability of the reactions that cause the screen to glow, heavy metals like platinum and iridium must be added. But as the reliability increases, the light energy of the reaction drops significantly, and heat energy increases.
Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany discovered that other compounds besides these expensive heavy metals can be used without a significant drop in reliability or increase in heat energy.
This means the expensive heavy metal parts of OLED screens might not be necessary in future generations, so their price will drop without an appreciable impact on reliability or picture quality.
Advantages Beyond Television
One of the most impressive qualities of OLED screens is that they can be curved and bent without breaking.
We’re living in an era totally dominated by screens, and our smartphone and tablet screens are extremely susceptible to fracture. Even putting your phone in your pocket the wrong way can crack the screen. I’ve done it a few times myself.
With a flexible screen, the likelihood of cracking a screen by bending it is eliminated. But honestly, that’s just the beginning. Companies like Sony and Kyocera have already designed smartphone prototypes with huge screens that can be folded like leather wallets. The current crop of massive, stiff smartphones will look absolutely ridiculous in the future, when phones will have folding screens as big as our laptop’s.
The next era of mobile computing will be wearable tech and tech that integrates into our clothing. We’re only seeing its earliest form with smartwatches. Flexible screens will make smartwatches much more comfortable to wear and much easier to design. We’ll also see screens being integrated into surfaces we’d never seen before. OLED screens could be bent into bicycle handlebars for trip computers, or gently curved to match the contours of an electric guitar.
The best part about all of this is that it’s not even that far into the future. We’re halfway there right now.