A New Breed of Display Starts to Flex Its Muscles
by Robert Zehner
If you want a glimpse of the future of display technology, I recommend that you head to your local neighborhood multiplex and catch the latest sci-fi or fantasy movie. I'm not talking about the stunning 3-D effects in James Cameron's billion-dollar blockbuster, Avatar. Instead, I'm referring to the displays used by the characters in these types of movies. Whether it's the A.D. 2054 edition of USA Today in Minority Report or Harry Potter's animated Daily Prophet, filmmakers are captivated by flexible displays.
This month, we feature articles by two companies that are racing to commercialize real-life flexible displays that could eventually bring those movie props to life. These two different efforts span the breadth of approaches to building a non-glass display. Ray Ma from Universal Display Corp. (UDC) writes about emissive OLED displays, primarily built on thin, stainless-steel substrates that have been processed through a conventional amorphous-silicon display fab, while Seamus Burns discusses Plastic Logic's polymer-based organic transistor backplane, mated to an electrophoretic reflective imaging film. These two displays also represent the culmination of decades of research and development in fields ranging from semiconductor physics to packaging design – research that, along the way, yielded a Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery that organic molecules can be made to conduct electricity, a fact central to the success of Plastic Logic and UDC.
In between these two extremes are a myriad of other flex research and development efforts from a variety of sources, each with its own, unique approach. There are enough of these, in fact, to warrant a new SID Display Week program subcommitte for flexible and e-paper displays, which was inaugurated in 2009.
In the past, it may have seemed as if the reality of a flexible display would forever hover just out of reach. However, as I write this, I have just returned home from the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, where Plastic Logic announced the launch of its Que electronic-reader product, constructed around the company's own flexible e-paper display. First shipments are not slated until April, but pre-orders are already being accepted. In the midst of the Plastic Logic launch, another e-publishing concern named Skiff quietly announced that it will be coming to market with its own reader device, based on an 11.5-in. metal-foil flexible display. Beyond these two announcements, there are reports that other display companies are readying their own flex tech-nologies for mass production, including Prime View International's plastic-based EPLaR displays which were profiled in the December 2009 issue of Information Display.
Having held the Plastic Logic Que in my hands, it is worth noting that the device itself is emphatically not flexible, regardless of the display technology within. The Skiff device, too, is a rigid reader. So, why go with flex? Both companies tout the ruggedness that a non-glass display brings to their products, so that users do not have to sweat when their e-reader takes a tumble from the desk to the floor. Freed from the weight of a large sheet of glass, these devices also promise to be thinner and lighter than anything we've seen with an 11-in.-diagonal screen. You may not be able to roll up either of these readers and put them in your pocket, but flexibility pays off, even when encased in a rigid form factor.
We are all used to thinking of flexible displays as a technology of the future. If things go as planned for Plastic Logic, Skiff, and and the other contenders out there, 2010 will mark the year that this particular bit of technology becomes a reality. I guess that sci-fi writers will have to find something else to dream about. •