According to the National Retail Federation, U.S. retail industry sales for the 2011 holiday season were up 4.1%, year-over-year, with total sales of $471.5 billion between November 1 and December 31.1 This positive news is somewhat tempered by data from the United States Department of Commerce, which, while acknowledging that consumer spending picked up at the end of the year, notes that sales of automobiles and the higher price of gasoline may have had more to do with the upturn than widespread consumer confidence.2 As it turns out, retail holiday sales are difficult to track. Strong Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales do not necessarily equate to stronger sales during the rest of the season, and what with returned merchandise and gift cards still to be redeemed, it may be a few months more before we have a definitive number. In the meantime, here are some interesting facts about sales relating to the display industry.
Amazon does not release sales figures, but has divulged that 2011 was the best year to date for sales of its Kindle products. Throughout December, customers purchased well over 1 million Kindle devices per week. The $199 Kindle Fire (with an IPS LCD rather than an electrophoretic display) was the number one selling item on Amazon.com for the 12 weeks leading up to Christmas.3
According to a recent Pew Internet report,4 tablet and eBook-reader ownership increased spectacularly over the 2011/2012 holiday gift-giving period, with the share of adults in the United States owning tablet computers nearly doubling from 10 to 19% between mid-December and early January. eReader owners also jumped from 10 to 19% over the same time period.
The report noted that prior to the holiday season, from mid-2011 into the fall, there had not been much change in the ownership numbers for tablets and eBook readers. The authors surmize that Amazon's new low-priced tablet, the Kindle Fire, and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, which were introduced at considerably cheaper prices than other tablets, may have spurred spending. In addition, the introduction of sub-$100 Nook and Kindle eReaders very likely made it easier for consumers to take the eReader plunge.
GameStop Corp. reported that holiday sales increased only slightly, as sales of new video game software from PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 titles such as "Call of Duty 3" and "Elder Scrolls V" offset a 20% drop in hardware sales. According to Reuters, sales of traditional video game products such as consoles have been struggling worldwide as gamers have turned to online gaming as well as gaming on tablets and phones.5
Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) recently introduced its i2R technology, electronic paper that is both re-writable and re-usable. To use it, you send an image to a thermal printer, which transfers the one-color image to the electronic paper (Fig. 1). The e-paper can be cleared and reprinted numerous times. "We've rewritten it close to 300 times with our homemade equipment in the lab," says Janglin Chen, General Director of ITRI's Display Technology Center, "and there's no reason why it couldn't be done 500 or 1000 times."
Possible applications include tickets for events and transportation, ID badges, and signage. Chen notes that the technology is ideal for temporary IDs, as well as for airline boarding passes and other documents that are significant to security but are not meant to last.
i2R is made of ITO-coated PET (polyethylene terephthalate) that is 125 μm thick. Atop the ITO is a cholesteric liquid-crystal material dispersed in gelatin. "It's kind of a thick syrup," explains Chen. The "syrup" is then coated with a layer of pigment, and on top of this pigment layer another layer of electrodes is placed. "The structure is simple and elegant," says Chen. Apparently members of the press think so; the i2R e-paper won a 2011 Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award.
At this point, says Chen, e-paper is basically ready for use by interested manufacturers. "We are not going to replace paper," he says, "but we offer options. We want people to consider it for applications that require a frequent update. Then bistable is perfect because it only requires power when it changes."
Fig. 1: ITRI's rewritable e-paper allows text and graphics to be printed and then erased, making it possible to reuse the paper hundreds of times. Image courtesy ITRI.
Back in December 2010, Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., acquired Liquavista, based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Liquavista, founded in 2006 as a spin-off from Philips Research Labs, is the developer of an electro-wetting technology for applications in eReaders, mobile phones, media players, and other mobile devices. This technology, which operates in transmissive, reflective, transparent, and transflective modes, is designed to enable the creation of displays with bright, colorful images and reduced power consumption.
Since the acquisition, there has not been much news about Liquavista, so Information Display caught up with Liquavista CEO Johan Feenstra to see what has been happening. For one, Liquavista is now Samsung LCD Netherlands R&D Center (SNRC). The financial backing of Samsung has been great for the company, notes Feenstra, saying, "Samsung looks at this business more strategically than venture capitalists would. So we're focusing much more on R&D now. Since the acquisition, that has accelerated significantly." The focus of current R&D is primarily on LC alternatives with a view to eReader and tablet applications. So while there isn't a lot of product news at the moment, there will be some at some point. "We're making good progress and are quite happy to be part of Samsung," says Feenstra.
Among the most-anticipated exhibits at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January were the 55-in. OLED TVs from LG and Samsung. The TVs lived up to their reputation, judging from the many positive accounts to be found online. The next two questions on everybody's mind are: "How much?" and "When can I buy one?" The answers are still to come, but you can learn more from Steve Sechrist, who has reported on those OLED TVs and much more from CES in this issue of Information Display.
– Jenny Donelan