The Progress of Portable Displays

by Stephen Atwood

This month, we take a look at the topic of tablets, ranging from eReaders to holographic displays, but I want to start with some observations on the topics of tablets, eReaders, and other portable displays. We asked guest editor Jason Heikenfeld, Associate Professor & Director for the Novel Devices Laboratory at the School of Electronic and Computing Systems at the University of Cincinnati, to help us understand the latest product trends, as well as how the new devices would be used, and what the future looked like for these types of products. Jason assembled a nice lineup of perspectives we are pleased to feature this month.

It is easy to be optimistic about this segment of the industry when you see the significant adoption of eReaders, tablets, smartphones, and other similar devices appearing everywhere. I am on an airplane as I write this, and everyone around me is peering into their tablet, smartphone, or eReader. I feel out of date with my traditional laptop computer and 15-in. screen as I click away on an almost full-sized keyboard, counting the precious minutes until that dreaded pop-up flag alerts me to an empty battery. (I might also acknowledge that I feel pretty cramped too and will soon shut this down and grab my Kindle.) My fellow travelers are enjoying state-of-the-art touch screens and almost unending battery life with much more space on their tray tables. There has clearly been a revolution in personal-computing technology.

However, as much as it seems that the frontier of personal-computing devices has been conquered, some functionality still appears to be missing. For example, all of the devices I can buy today use fixed, flat, rigid displays. The display dictates the physical outline of the device and displays larger than about 5 in. on the diagonal relegate the device to a bag or purse for transport.

The entire time I have been working with ID magazine, we have been publishing articles on flexible displays and trying to keep a balanced view between the hype of "just around the corner" and the pessimism of "that will never happen." We have published numerous articles on the underlying technologies for flexible displays, carried various accounts about the supply chain and manufacturing technologies required, talked at length about the uncountable advantages of a display that can bend or fold, and in some cases noted the loss of early-entry developers who tried and failed to achieve the goal. Most of these perspectives have been positive, but none have demonstrated the proof that rollable or foldable displays are soon to be in our hands in any mass-market application. The wait has been long.

This month, we offer another optimistic view in our Frontline Technology feature, "The Future of Displays is Foldable," by author Edzer Huitema from Polymer Vision. Edzer's view is that most of the underlying technology is indeed in place today, with well-understood manufacturing processes and ever-improving substrate materials. The challenge, in part, will be to merge the "foldable" part of the effort with new display technologies such as OLED and electrowetting to move beyond the limited range of performance currently available from electrophoretic. Between now and then – and Edzer's view is that "then" means another 3–5 years – we will need to see if the chicken-and-egg cycle of consumer acceptance can fuel any more product development to spur better volumes and hence generate enough revenue and profit to see any rollable or foldable electrophoretic offerings become mainstream.

Meanwhile, although portable displays are still rigid, this has not stopped consumers from buying a lot of them in the past year. DisplaySearch estimates that over 64 million tablets were sold in 2011, and the market could exceed 250 million units by 2015. The problem is that consumers give up certain features when they buy a tablet – like this great old-fashioned keyboard I am typing on – and some manufacturers are missing out on the party because tablets and notebook PCs come from radically different family trees. The traditional PC makers, encouraged by Intel, are pushing a new segment of portable computer dubbed the "Ultrabook," which we understand were highlighted at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January. I know all this because of our Display Marketplace feature this month written by Richard Shim from DisplaySearch, titled "Tablets Impact the Notebook Market: Enter the Ultrabook." Richard does a great job breaking down the key elements of the designs, the processor roadmaps, the economics for consumers, and the impact on displays. I'll let you read the article and draw your own conclusions, but I believe this is another new segment that has a bright future.

Speaking of CES, as always, ID was well represented in Las Vegas in January by Steve Sechrist, and we are pleased to have his CES show report on all the display news in this issue. As most of you have probably already heard, among the billions (or was it trillions) of pixels on display were the much-heralded and long overdue organic light-emitting-diode (OLED) TV panels from Samsung and LG. This is the event we have been anticipating for a couple of years now, and it appears that the industry may have finally given birth to mass-producible large-area OLED TV panels! I heard their performance was great and even the cynical electronics industry press was impressed. Cigars for everyone and now let's see how fast these kids can grow and mature.

As I said earlier, one of the things we were looking for were new applications for the current field of personal devices, and the subject of textbooks came up. While eReaders have become popular for general reading applications, they have been slower to find use in schools and other academic settings as part of formal education. Clearly, the advantage of putting a textbook on an eReader can be appreciated, if for no other reason than just reducing the weight on a student's back. However, the usage model for a textbook is different from that of a novel. Textbooks require more frequent searching and less linear reading. Digital readers themselves do not always offer the best method for exploring textbooks and they have other drawbacks when widely deployed in classrooms. In his Enabling Technology feature titled "Dual-Pigment Electrophoretic Displays for Reading Textbooks," author and E-Ink Holdings VP Sriram Peruvemba explains the advantages of e-Textbooks. Encouraged by Sri's article, I actually downloaded a new textbook to my Kindle recently and I'm evaluating for myself how well the experience works. I saved about $40 on a $200 book – not an overwhelming incentive, but I would argue that I just helped the environment and defrayed the purchase price of my Kindle by 25%. We'll see if this option gets more financially compelling in the future.

One common feature in every smartphone and tablet today is a touch screen. While many eReaders also have touch screens, some do not, and the application demands on an eReader touch screen are greater than those on other devices because of the need for annotation and hence digital ink. In our second Frontline Technology feature this month, "Touch Technology for eReaders," author Geoff Walker explains why putting a touch screen in an eReader can be difficult, and what the limitations and advantages of each technology candidate are. Geoff drills down to very specific details of the touch screens on each of the currently available reading devices, summing up their strengths and weaknesses. I always enjoy Geoff's insightful analysis. As he and I have said many times, there is no single touch solution that meets 100% of the user's demands for this or most other applications.

One thing users have been demanding recently are realistic 3-D displays without the need for glasses – virtual displays that go beyond current autostereoscopic modes and truly re-create the natural world. At a recent imaging-technology conference I attended, I was privileged to hear Dr. Pierre-Alexandre Blanche from the University of Arizona talk about his vision for a real-time holographic display. I was impressed with his concise analysis of the human-vision issues associated with current stereoscopic displays, and also by his very innovative approach to holographic stereography that uses a new photorefractive material that may help create a 3-D display that reproduces all human visual cues. At my invitation, Dr. Blanche agreed to contribute his article titled "Toward the Ultimate 3-D Display" and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Another subject that we like to keep our eye on is intellectural property issues and this how they affect those of you who invent new products and technologies. This month we begin the first of a three-part series analyzing the sweeping changes to the U.S. patent process brought about by the passage of the "America Invents Act" (AIA) patent reform legislation. You may remember author Clark Jablon, Partner and Registered Patent Attorney at Panitch Schwarze Belisario & Nadel LLP (PSB&N) in Philadelphia, PA, for a series on intellectual property strategies he authored for ID a couple years ago. Clark has graciously agreed to return and help us all understand this new twist on the U.S. patent process. This month's installment, titled "What Companies Need to Know About the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) Patent Reform Legislation: Part I" focuses on key litigation provisions that are taking effect right now. Staying informed on strategies and practices in the field of intellectual-property protection is a crucial part of running any successful technology business. I cannot thank Clark Jablon enough for offering his time and energy to educate the readers of ID on this critical topic.

With that, it's a "full lid," as they say in the White House press corps. I hope you enjoy this February/March issue of Information Display, and, as always, I look forward to your feedback. To send us comments or suggestions, you can reach us by e-mail and on the web at When you visit our Web site, be sure to help out our advertising partners by clicking their links and learning more about their valuable products and services. ID is here to serve the display industry, and the industry supports ID through its generous advertising support. •