Tripping the Organic Light Fantastic

Imagine a flat panel computer display with the flexibility of a sheet of plastic. Right now, displays based on the use of organic, light-emitting diode materials (OLEDs) are appearing on the market, embedded in small form-factor portable electronic and wireless devices such as PDAs and multifunction cell phones.

You may have already seen one as a display on your digital camera, cell phone, car stereo, or electric razor.

Over the next two-to-three years, larger versions will begin to replace the standard CRT and LCD screens in use today. Yes, replace. Why? Because OLEDs, and a derivative technology called PLEDs, (for polymer light emitting diode), promise to be cheaper to make, consume far less power, and project a brighter, clearer image than the alternatives on the market today.

More than 50 companies worldwide are chasing this new opportunity. Applications that will see early use of larger displays include computer monitors and televisions.

The cost efficiency derived from OLED and PLED technologies results from the fact that these displays use materials that emit light, whereas common lead crystal displays (LCDs) require backlighting. Colored light is emitted when a voltage is applied to layered organic semiconductor materials that are “sandwiched” together.

OLEDs and PLEDs also promise to be easier manufacture and, therefore, less costly. However, what will really drives manufacturing volume is these screens will go almost anywhere. Because screen-makers can use glass, plastic, and metal foil as substrates, OLEDs will appear on wristbands and be rolled up and stored for use on laptops.

PLED will appear as instantly changeable signage on cylindrical columns in lobbies, auditoriums, and sports arenas, in addition to all of the places we now use electronic displays. These displays can be as big as billboards, as walls, and street signs, or as small as the face of your wrist watch. They could even be embedded in virtual skin.

So?, You Say.

The significance of OLEDs to computing cannot be understated. As ubiquitous as portable wireless data emitting and collection devices have already become, OLED technology makes them even more desirable and ubiquitous.

Imagine a computer screen that rolls up and drops into your purse or pocket. Using OLEDs, PDA displays could actually display lots of readable, intelligible information like an entire webpage exactly as you now see it on your laptop—but with better resolution. In fact, OLEDs could allow multifunction PDAs and laptops to converge into a single personal, portable, universal information unit.

OLED/PLED technologies have already begun to enable a new generation of mobile applications. For example, OLEDs can be used in wearable computer monitors called “heads-up” displays (HUD). A heads-up type of goggle is now being developed for a large aircraft manufacturer that technicians can wear as they walk through an airplane shell as it is being assembled.

As they glance around, they will see structural diagrams, wiring schematics, and instructions, dynamically adjusted based on the technicians view angle and view object. Because these wearable displays must be flexible and require a projection resolution closer to a real computer, OLEDs are an ideal solution.

HUD displays will also appear in the sporting goods market. For example, a wearable display is already being developed for cyclists. Different than goggles, this display consists of a visor that contains a very small one-inch display that attaches to the edge of any helmet near the top so that the rider can see the road straight ahead and below, but can view the display by glancing upward.

The display is wirelessly connected to a data collection device elsewhere on the bicycle that monitors various metrics such as speed, gear number, and often body metrics such as heart-rate (bicyclists attempt to attain a particular cardio-saturation level and maintain that level throughout a trip).

While the amount of information contained in the HUD can be modest by design, the point is to augment the wearer’s visual reality with a carefully selected amount of pertinent information that can change based on the real-time situation of the viewer without compromising the “straight-ahead” view of the wearer. This allows hands-free viewing of information.

One can easily imagine a myriad of applications for heads-up displays. When combined with RFID, warehouse workers, for example, could “see” what’s inside shipping containers, or piled onto pallets in a matter of seconds. And, beyond wearable monitors, the automobile industry will soon begin to attach transparent OLEDs to car windshields.

We have become used to ingesting most of our information visually. For that reason, OLEDs promise to make mobile electronic information devices even more mobile and ubiquitous. They will also usher-in a new generation of portable computing applications.

John Webster is the founder and senior analyst at Data Mobility Group and co-author of “Inescapable Data – Harnessing the Power of Convergence” by John Webster and Chris Stakutis.