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Flat screens on the march

I am just back from supper with Perry, Adriana and co., and now just about, before sleep overtakes me, have time to report – and to expand upon the fact – that before I left I had another drool over Adriana’s portable computer, with its look-at-it-from-everywhere screen. This time, instructed to feel how light it is, I picked the thing up, and did so with considerable ease.

Earlier in the day, I chanced upon this item of techno-news about something called FOLEDs. FOLEDs are even better than OLEDs. OLEDs are Organic Light Emitting Diodes, and FOLEDs are Flexible Organic Light Emitting Diodes. In English, what this appears to mean is … well, put it like this. When I bought my digital camera recently there was a film of transparent plastic to protect the camera’s little screen which shows what the picture is going to look like or does look like. What all these acronyms appear to mean is that in a few years time, that thin film of plastic will be the screen.

Over the last couple of decades, mobile computing and communications have changed the way we act – and interact. Notebook PCs, PDAs and cellular phones make it easy to carry information with us whenever and wherever we go. Yet, despite enormous advances in form and functionality, today’s devices can still prove clunky and challenging to carry on planes, trains and automobiles.

However, if researchers have their way, we will soon be able to bend the rules of physics. Flexible Organic Light-Emitting Diode (FOLED) technology could pave the way for notebook computers with roll-up screens, toys that show vivid images on their surfaces, even clothing with displays woven into the fabric. “Within the next decade, flexible displays will open up all sorts of possibilities,” states Mark Thompson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California. “It will change the way we access information and entertainment.”

Manufactured from transparent plastic films or other ultra-lightweight materials filled with special polymers, these devices could lead to less expensive and far more convenient consumer electronics. Already, researchers have developed prototype roll-up displays, and more basic Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) technology has been built into display screens of a handful of cameras, DVD players and mobile phones. “It is only a matter of time before OLED becomes a predominant display technology,” says Steve Van Slyke, a research fellow at Eastman Kodak Co. and one of the inventors of the technology in the early 1980s.

What makes active-matrix OLED technology so appealing is that it provides a few more vivid image than LCDs and other displays; offers a viewing angle as high as 160 degrees without backlighting; and requires far less power than today’s mainstream display technologies. The latter is particularly appealing for those using battery-powered devices, such as notebook computers. “Any incremental gain in battery life is a significant issue,” Thompson points out.

And so on. I am not sure how long this piece will stay up on the www, so I have quoted it at some length.

When all this comes to pass, Adriana’s portable computer will then seem like my very first portable computer, which was called an Osborne, and was only portable in the sense that your holiday luggage is portable (if it is), or that my mum’s ancient sewing machine is portable.

And how about clothes that change colour and pattern like a movie?

I realise that there will be more to the good life in the future than better gadgets, and that better gadgets might coincide with worse life, but better gadgets are still very, very nice, and I am impressed. Not even the fact that the EU has backed it can suppress my interest in and enthusiasm for this technology.

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7 comments to Flat screens on the march

  • “And how about clothes that change colour and pattern like a movie?”

    I wonder if you could combine that with a camera to make sort of Predator-style invisibility camouflage jacket.

  • Dale Amon

    I can’t remember exactly when, but probably around 1999, my erstwhile business partner and I were on a trip to Cork and I wrote up some ideas which suddenly struck me. I had read some of the early research reports on this technology and as we drove past signs I had a flashforward to the not so very far off day when there is no such thing as a static sign.

    Kids will grow up thinking road signs and adverts that are actually *painted* are really quaint and you must be really old to remember them, and they used horses and wagons and there were cowboys then weren’t there?

  • Johnathan

    Brian, I see your weblog is still up the proverbial creek. What is the problem?

  • Julian Taylor

    Screens are only the start of it – have a look at this [LINK]

  • Modern LCD displays are a demonstration of what can be done if you have a genuine need and throw immense amounts of money at a problem. They are a technology with all kinds of innate limitations, but for which the limitations have been reduced and minimised simply because the need for flat and light screens was so great, the computer industry was so big, and the money was therefore there to be spent. Getting this technology to its present state has cost many tens of billions of dollars, at least.

    OLEDs on the other hand are not yet a mature technology, but they lack many of the innate limitations of LCDs. That they are very flexible and may be rolled up has often been stated as one of their advantages – I don’t think a FOLED will be anything special) . The problems with OLEDs at present are more teething problems than fundamental limitations of the technology, and there is a strong chance they will take most or all of the display market before very long.

    As for billboards at the side of the road incorporating motion or images that appear on our clothes or similar, I think for these to become ubiquitous we will need displays that work with reflected light and do not emit light themselves. That is, they will need to be colour images like paintings or printed photographs that are only visible when you shine a light on them. This is reasonably easy to do for a black and white image, but is extremely hard to do with a colour image. I don’t think we will see this soon.

  • Sounds like we’re one step closer to Arthur C Clarke’s imagined softscreens. (Think of a peice of paper with all the functionality of a PC).

  • One oft-missed advantage of OLEDs is that they emit light, whereas LCD’s just block the light from a source behind the screen. That means that a “black” pixel on your flat screen is a place where the LCD is blocking the light, and because some light always leaks through, black parts of images on LCDs are always a bit grey. This is why people who need perfect images still use old-fashioned CRTs, which also emit light. OLEDs can potentially offer CRT-quality colour and black levels in a flat, flexible screen. What’s not to like?