A Plea for Flexible Expectations

I was recently interviewed by an electronics-magazine reporter who had heard the recent industry news about OLED partnerships such as Kodak/Sanyo being dissolved. His question was why had OLED technology failed and what would happen now. Of course, I explained that while there had been some business shakeouts in the industry of late, OLED technology was coming along quite nicely with many significant advances currently being reported. So then, his follow-up question was along the lines of how soon would OLED technology then displace LCDs and takeover all displays. At this point, I realized he was looking at the industry the same way many of us used to do, and in some cases the way the marketing people would like us to look at it – each new technology will either dominate or fail. But the display industry is much more complicated than this and much harder to characterize. When new technology arrives on the scene, there is an instant buzz and flurry of short-term expectations, frequently driven by the need to raise lots of money to fund the development. We have all seen the exaggerated expectations for complete domination by technology X in unrealistic time frames such as 18 months or so. Naturally, when these things do not come true the very next story on the wires is how technology X is doomed and the investors are running away. In many cases, dedicated R&D efforts continue, and in some number of years, technology X actually emerges as a viable commercial offering with great promise. The problem in this case is not the technology, but the disservice we all do to our industry by creating simplistic and unrealistic expectations. It is no wonder people looking in find it hard to explain what is going on when our own press and publicity constantly seeks to oversimplify our efforts and declare world domination even before the first product comes off the production line. So, I would like to challenge us all to work harder at setting realistic expectations about our industry and help educate people to the opportunities for expansion, rather than displacement, that new technologies offer. We should be talking about timelines in the 5–10-year ranges, with realistic estimates of where new technology can augment or expand applications and be mindful of the often substantial manufacturing infrastructure changes that may be needed to bring new technology to market.

In this issue, we look at some recent advancements in two primary technologies that hold promise for application in flexible displays: OLED and electrophoretic technologies. Both are extremely promising fields of research with some limited commercial success thus far, and many confused reviewers pronouncing either global domination or complete defeat. The right answer is most excitedly neither extreme. Both technologies have very strong research teams behind them and are poised to become substantial commercial successes in suitable applications, but nowhere in our industry today is there one technology suited for all purposes. The opportunity is not one of displacement of existing solutions, but more it is the ability to enhance applications and help realize totally new products. Recent discussions have left me believing that true flexible displays, in the sense of mimicking paper, could be another 10 years away, while a plethora of great intermediate mobile products such as e-book readers will wet our appetites and fuel the development budgets to keep moving along.

Also in this month's issue is a report on the iMoD MEMS display technology and how it may advance the performance and features for mobile displays. iMoD technology was started in the early 90s by Mark Miles and Eric Larson when they were researchers at MIT. They formed a company called Etalon and started working on iMoD technology in the Boston area.

In early 2000, they moved the company to San Francisco, changed the name to Iridigm, and raised their first round of financing. Qualcomm was a first round investor and then acquired the company in 2004. MEMS technology is familiar to us by way of the Texas Instruments DLP system that uses small mirrors that flip with voltage. In the iMoD technology, flat rectangular metallic membranes are moved in and out of position relative to a glass substrate and thin-film stack at dimensions that produce optical interference at different colors of light. Unlike DLP, iMoD can not only modulate light, but it can select colors of light allowing it to be viewed directly without additional color filters. With a long term strategy in mind, Qualcomm appears to be setting reasonable expectations and looking at the future potential for low-power mobile displays.

This month we welcome back contributing editor Aris Silzars, who normally produces the JSID preview articles, to write his "Top Ten" list for the Business of Displays (BOD) department. Aris has chaired the SID Business Conference for the past 2 years and will now be managing the BOD feature each month for us.

As we approach the half-way point for 2006, I hope you are enjoying Information Display magazine and the work our dedicated staff does to assemble each issue. It is a busy summer and a lot of exciting content is coming over the second half of the year. Once again, we welcome your feedback and encourage you to write to us with article ideas you would like to see in future issues. You can reach us my email at press@pcm411. com.

– Stephen P. Atwood