In light of Sony’s recent announcement that they will ship the first commercial OLED television this December, now is a good time to look at the impact of this technology on consumer electronics, particularly portable electronics. The big announcement may be about the new 11-inch viewable, 3mm thick television, but in reality the big news is that mass market OLED is coming soon and it will change the face of portable technology immensely.
Before we look at that, let’s look at OLED technology itself. OLED stands for Organic Light-Emitting Diode. It is not a brand new technology, having been developed by Eastman Kodak in the early 1980s. OLED displays are basically a series of organic compounds that are between two conductors; when current is applied through the conductors a bright light is emitted. Eastman Kodak has developed films of the primary colors; some are more efficient then others. The resulting matrix of colored compounds provides the colored lights as required. Kodak describes OLED thusly:
OLED displays stack up several thin layers of materials. They operate on the attraction between positively and negatively charged particles. When voltage is applied, one layer becomes negatively charged relative to another transparent layer. As energy passes from the negatively charged (cathode) layer to the other (anode) layer, it stimulates organic material between the two, which emits light visible through an outermost layer of glass.
That is a lot of techno-speak but at its essence OLED displays are ultra-thin, incredibly high contrast ratio displays that require no backlight as the organic compounds provide their own luminescence and color when an electrical current is applied. Comparing this to LCD displays which require a backlight to display images (which requires an extra layer, equaling a thicker display), a current OLED display requires 40% less power than a conventional LCD display and the OLED panel will also deliver a much higher contrast ratio (the higher the better as a higher ratio gives you truer blacks). The announced Sony 11-inch display features a 1000000:1 contrast ratio which blows their premiere LCD displays 52" BRAVIA XBR series LCD – 18000:1 dynamic contrast ratio/2000:1 on-contrast ratio) out of the water. The image and viewing angle on this display is phenomenal and it brings to mind other more compelling reasons to adopt OLED.
Look around your home or think of portable electronics you see every day – cell phones, MP3 players, pocket PCs, PSP, DS Lite, laptops, LCD displays, even electronic components like receivers, microwaves, and coffee makers have LCD or LED displays. The common downfall of all LCD displays on portable electronics is that the display when backlit requires a great deal of battery power. Let’s look at the PSP as an example (since I just got a PSP Slim and Lite ). With the new battery the manual says you can play games for 4-6 hours. If the PSP had a current generation OLED display (that uses 40% less power the LCD) not only would the PSP Slim and Lite be even slimmer and lighter (hey the new Sony 11” TV is just 3mm thick), you could be playing games for up to 8½ hours!
Not impressive? Look at the new iPod Touch from Apple — it boasts a beautiful 3.5 inch touch LCD display and 22 hours of playtime on one charge. With an OLED display the iPod Touch would not only have a crisper, brighter image, it would have a playtime of nearly 31 hours. OLED televisions will also be very cost effective for their owners as the draw of power will be substantially less than conventional CRT/plasma/LCD displays. Currently there are many electronic devices that use OLED displays, but they are generally restricted to smaller screens and lower resolutions; but as time passes the penetration will increase. The OLED-Info site has a great list of products that currently use this innovative technology.
OLED technology will have a great impact on current mainstream electronics once it reaches the mass market, but there is another relatively unknown niche that OLED could fill that could potentially change the entire perspective on print media. Flexible OLED displays are as the name implies a flexible display that can be rolled up or laid flat to read or watch media on its display. There are many flexible OLED prototypes at trade shows to whet people's appetites and to me this is truly the most exciting and groundbreaking application for the technology.
Picture a small 4mm tube that you slip in your jacket pocket or bag that you can take out, unroll, and connect to a station (at your home or kiosk/store) and download your daily newspaper or magazine subscriptions. You can then read the paper or magazine on this .3 mm thick display (it clicks into a flat display) on the train/bus/cab or while drinking your coffee. It always keeps your place; you can highlight text with a click, or e-mail an article to a friend with a few steps. Books, online articles, dictionaries, the possibilities of these flexible displays are endless. It may sound like science fiction, but the technology is here now, we just need to wait for the production methods to catch up with the technology and soon all of us will be enjoying OLED clarity and flexible displays in every facet of our daily life.