New Year, New Innovations

Here’s to a Flexible New Year

by Stephen P. Atwood

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It’s 2015 and welcome to our first issue of Information Display in the New Year.  I truly hope you all had a great restful holiday and are ready for whatever 2015 brings to our industry.  This issue’s focus is a combination of flexible displays and wearable electronics applications.  We’ve been here before, having visited flexible display technologies last year at this time (remember the cuttlefish and electronic skin?) and before that in 2011 with stories about research into flexible LCDs and foldable backplanes.  Each time we take on this topic we find more reasons to get excited, with the promise of the ultimate rollable/foldable display inching closer.  However, the rollable display is not the only reason people are investing in flexible technology, and I would suggest that there are at least four main categories of advantages that flexible displays can bring to the party:

Ruggedization:  By making the display and associated elements flexible, the product becomes more rugged and unbreakable in normal use.

Curved and formable formats:  With flexibility, whether it is one-time forming or continuous bending, products such as smartphones, watches , and even car dashboards can be designed to be more accessible and user friendly.

Expanded screen sizes and content:  The most obvious opportunity is the ever-popular concept of a small device that fits in your pocket but then can be unfolded into a large-sized screen capable of full-HD resolution or beyond.

New and previously unrealizable product concepts:  The very nature of flexible technology suggests that traditional concepts of square, flat devices with front-facing touch screens can be shattered when the display itself is infinitely formable and flexible.

Most of the flexible-display product concepts discussed in the recent literature, including some in this issue, will leverage one or more of these intrinsic advantages.  Consider LG’s G Flex smartphone, for example.  Largely heralded for its ability to resist breakage (including an impressive demonstration by Consumer Reports of its ability to withstand 1000 pounds of pressure), it also provides a natural curve that fits a user’s face better than a flat phone.  Back in 2011, we published an article discussing the concept of a new user interface where bending the display created an input to the user interface that would initiate actions like zooming or panning.  (“A Flexible Display Enables a New Intuitive Interface,” February 2011.)  This and more innovation is surely on the way.

Of course, until the product designers of the future can get their hands on real production-level flexible displays, we will not know what feature elements truly take hold to become compelling to consumers, but we are already seeing that the marketplace is hungry to taste new things when the technology recipes are ready.

Also worth considering is the fact that “flexible” is just one part of a bigger category of technologies enabling all types of “wearables.”  Our cover this month provides a brief illustration of some of the many concepts for wearable electronics that are making their ways into the marketplace.  Glasses, watches, patches, clothing, and even shoes are going electronic, and the applications they support can range from whimsical to highly sophisticated.  Just consider the category of fitness tracking – close to 20 million devices in use today, and that number is predicted to triple in fewer than 5 years.  We are already dependent on our cell phones on a daily basis.  I think it’s easy to believe we could be talked into carrying around a few more similar devices as long as they perform some useful or entertaining function.

Carrying is inconvenient, however, so the next step is to make these devices wearable and hence an extension of our clothing or body.  Watches and glasses may be obvious, but I think they are just the tip of a potential iceberg.  To give you a taste of what’s out there, our own managing editor Jenny Donelan penned an Enabling Technology feature that provides a sampling of available devices.  Jenny takes a look at a number of currently popular categories and offers some perspective about how each one looks today and where they might be heading in the years to come.

Taking a deeper dive into the underlying technology, we have a trio of Frontline Technology articles developed by our Guest Editor Ruiqing (Ray) Ma, Director of Flexible PHOLED Lighting at Universal Display Corp.  Ray has done a great job covering several important aspects of flexible and wearable technology.  He introduces it to you in his guest editor’s note titled, “Get Ready for Another Form-Factor Revolution.”  I suggest you read this first for context and then go to the accompanying articles.  It’s interesting to see that in these reported efforts, the display technology of choice is OLED, not LC.  That seems to be a trend that goes along with making things thinner and more mechanically robust.  That is not to suggest that there is no further interest in flexible LCDs, but in this portable and wearable device space, the latest work seems to be focused on OLED displays.

The display business is truly a world-wide enterprise, and this month we take a look at the state of the industry in Japan in our Regional Business Review titled, “The Pursuit of Innovation,” also written by Jenny Donelan.  Jenny looks back at the last half-century of Japan’s economic history to set the context for where they are today and then offers some analysis of what the future might hold.  As she rightly points out, despite some recent challenges, Japan’s ability to combine government and private enterprise in the right proportions ensures that the investments in innovative products and technologies, including displays, will continue unabated.  If I had money to invest, I would be looking closely at Japan’s tech companies for good opportunities.

We complete our offerings this month with our Display Marketplace feature, “Wearables Challenge the Display Industry to a New Round of Development,” written by DisplaySearch analyst Paul Gray.  Paul’s wealth of information and experience enables him to take a thoughtful view of the prevailing applications today and their challenges as well as offering some advice to product managers for future success.

One thing that has struck me in the last year or so is how quickly current product designs have moved away from low-power display technologies like electrophoretic technology.  I still use my original Kindle almost every day for reading and it still lasts over a week on one charge.  When looking at non-video applications such as fitness trackers, health monitors, or watches, as Paul also suggests in his article, that there could still be room for reflective displays to make these devices more reliable and less power hungry.  Electrophoretic technology is inherently flexible, and if paired with the right flexible TFT backplane could still have some life in it in a new product category, just as it helped bring e-Readers to life. That’s just a suggestion for someone in the innovation department to take a closer look.

So, thanks to our authors, guest editor, and staff for working so hard on this issue, and I hope it stimulates some new creative ideas out there in our industry.  Happy New Year, everyone!  •