Living the Star Trek Life


Stephen Atwood

It is likely that most of you are familiar with the many episodes and storylines of the Star Trek science fiction franchise. Some 200 years into the future, the Star Trek personnel travel through the galaxy in technologically advanced spacecraft they call starships, encountering other civilizations that are also capable of space travel. One aspect of Star Trek that distinguishes it from many other Sci-Fi vehicles is the way the high-tech tools and seamless life-enriching technologies are liberally woven into each story.

A surprising number of these technologies, or at least their slightly less evolved versions, are already available to those of us who dwell in the 21st century. For example, people on Star Trek have small handheld devices they can use to contact any person they like, even over intergalactic distances. These "Communicators" as envisioned by series creator Gene Rodenberry, are what we all know now as cell phones. But in the 1960s when the first episodes aired, I doubt any of us realized what was coming. In later Star Trek episodes, the characters have hands-free communicators attached directly to their clothes, much like our Bluetooth devices today. Display technology is also richly portrayed in the 23rd century, from 3-D holograms the size of an entire room to huge, widescreen, high-resolution flat panels on almost every surface, to all manner of handheld devices with full-color video screens and touch interfaces. In fact, many of these futuristic portrayals are already becoming quite common. Also apparent is that the Star Trekcharacters do not view these display devices as exotic toys; they literally live with them and interact with them as part of their daily existence. They do not wear glasses to view 3-D displays, but they use the displays regularly for all the believable applications that 3-D enthusiasts have been talking about for so long, such as navigation and mapping, scientific imaging, and – unfortunately – even tactical warfare planning.

Something else that may not be obvious to most casual observers of the world as portrayed in Star Trek is that ambient lighting is a richly crafted element of the environment. Artificial light does not come from ceiling fixtures or point-source lamps. It comes from surfaces, walls, ceilings, and even furniture, and it somehow weaves a scene of peaceful and ergonomically perfect light around every conceivable circumstance. This lighting even simulates the natural rhythms of night and day to allow inhabitants to preserve their natural sleep cycles. It appears that people in the 23rd century seem to have conquered the challenges of aging vision – older people are rarely seen struggling to read or perform their work, even under the most incredibly stressful conditions. Visibility is never an issue during an attack by another starship, for example, or an impending explosion of the ship's engines. In any case, task lighting and ergonomic workstations will certainly be highly evolved in 200 years' time. A great many of these whimsical-seeming ideas are becoming real even today.

Could it happen that OLED technology will help enable the types of ideal lighting environments depicted in the Star Trek future? I think the answer is yes. Home and workplace lighting technology is about to undergo a paradigm shift not seen since the transition from candles to gas lighting and incandescent bulbs. As the economic elements work themselves out, I believe interior designers and ergonomic engineers will hold the key to widespread adoption of radically different lighting designs enabled by OLED technology. These designs will actually reduce the stress levels in our work lives and be able to improve our recreation and home lives as well. Governments will help by imposing regulations already under way in some parts of the world that address minimum standards on energy efficiency and ergonomics. These regulations will benefit LEDs as well as OLEDs, but I think the ability to shift from point sources to illuminating surfaces will be the key to OLEDs' success. As real opportunities for living-space improvements become viable, the advantage – even at a cost premium – will be compelling enough to drive the technology into homes and businesses. And, given Star Trek's record for predicting the technological future, I'm fairly sure we will not need to wait 200 years to enjoy our new home and work environments.

As you will discover in this issue of Information Display, which focuses on OLED technology, OLED lighting has many practical challenges to be resolved. These include scalable manufacturing, energy-efficient materials, and suitable economic models, but the future is overwhelmingly bright and that pun is intended with light-hearted enthusiasm.

If you want to gain a better understanding of the general illumination marketplace and the practical technical requirements for the development of OLED-based lamps and light sources, read our first Frontline Technology feature, "OLED Requirements for Solid-State Lighting," by Min-Hao Michael Lu and Peter Ngai from Acuity Brands Lighting, Inc., Within this very comprehensive and detailed discussion of the specifics of luminaire design, I learned a whole new vocabulary, along with a better appreciation of the complexity of factors that must converge for a near-perfect ambient light source design. Naturally, the authors are fairly bullish on the future for OLED lighting, but their enthusiasm is well supported by their objective and carefully considered analysis of the design space made available by OLED technology.

Even more insight into the potential of OLED lighting is provided by our second Frontline Technology feature from the Samsung Mobile Display R&D Center, "OLEDs: A Lighting Revolution?," by Ok-Keun Song and HoKyoon Chung. Here, the authors discuss some of the challenges of getting sufficient total light output as well as some of the newest structures to obtain better white points and luminous efficiency. Supporting this discussion with an even more comprehensive survey of the state of the art for phosphorescent OLED technology is our third feature, "Phosphorescent OLEDs: Lighting the Way for Energy-Efficient Solid-State Light Sources." In this article, authors Peter A. Levermore, Michael S. Weaver, Mike Hack, and Julie J. Brown from Universal Display Corp. (UDC) provide the most comprehensive look at the company's trademark PHOLED technology. As the inventors of PHOLED, the team at UDC is uniquely positioned to be able to see far into the future, and after reading its assessment of the many opportunities the technology provides, I have a strong feeling that UDC is on the right path for commercial adoption.

Of course, by this point you are probably wondering what has happened to OLED TVs. Do we even care anymore and why all the emphasis on OLEDs for lighting applications? To be honest, I was surprised, as I have noted earlier this year, that OLED TVs were not more prominent at Display Week and are not in retail box stores by now. Clearly, the people with significant investment in OLED technology are looking for all the possible avenues to commercial adoption. The fact that the same technology can also enable a new generation of solid-state lighting products is a great opportunity for them but I do not think it has diminished anyone's zeal for commercial television applications. However, as I think is often the case, the promise, the hype, and the marketing can get a little ahead of the real effort needed to make new display products completely successful in high-volume-manufacturing terms. To help us understand this better, author Barry Young, Managing Director of the OLED Association, has provided his very detailed assessment in this month's Display Marketplace feature, "When Can I Get My OLED TV?" I will not steal Barry's thunder by giving away the ending, but I will note that the real timeline for OLED TVs is probably a bit longer than we have been hearing and any investment in the underlying technology for lighting applications can only help with manufacturing technology, yields, and related concerns.

Finally, this month I am very pleased to welcome back long-time contributor and greatly respected IP attorney Clark Jablon, who offers his timely thoughts on "How to Patent Inventions on a Tight Corporate Budget." I don't think it has ever been a more daunting process to protect one's IP, and with the economic conditions we are all facing, the decision to move forward with the patent process is no small matter. I really think for those of us concerned about our IP strategies and the strategic planning of our R&D roadmaps, this article is a must-read to help sort out the best policy to implement within our own businesses. Once again I really appreciate Clark's valuable contributions to our collective education with regard to this issue.

There is one other item I want to note this month. Each year SID recognizes the best display products released to the marketplace during the previous 12 months and confers the Display of the Year Awards on them in recognition. As a member of this DYA selection committee, I can tell you firsthand that a great deal of debate, analysis, and personal energy goes into making the final recommendations. We review countless nominations and always many more worthy candidates than we can recognize. But until now, we have focused only on commercially available products, excluding really clever technology and product demonstrations that promise a bright future. Often, by the time these innovations become commercial products, most of us have moved our attention on to the next unsolved challenges. All this is about to change because beginning in 2011, SID will also recognize the best and brightest exhibits at the annual Display Week Exhibition. The brand new Best in Show awards will be presented at the Wednesday Luncheon after our team of roving reviewers has had enough time to survey the show floor on Tuesday. So, if you were still on the fence about exhibiting next year or looking for a new venue for your technology demonstrations, this is a perfect opportunity for you to come to Display Week and hopefully get the recognition you deserve. You can read more about this new program in our SID news section in this issue. •