Take a quick look around you. How many LCD and OLED screens can you see from where you sit? (If you're in a cafeteria full of texting teenagers, that's cheating!) I've got five right here, with accessories and packaging that point to another four mobile computing gadgets around my house.
That might be above average, but not by much. Digital screens are everywhere, and making them is a huge business. Better yet, the technology is still evolving, providing plenty of time to invest in winners before their best innovations hit the mainstream.
Here's what's new in screen technology this week.
Bendy glass that takes a beating
Glassware giant Corning (NYSE: GLW ) just announced a new product called Willow Glass. It's as strong as the Gorilla Glass you'll find protecting your Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone, but much thinner and lighter. In fact, it's so thin that you can bend it like a sheet of paper.
Corning says Willow Glass is perfect for curved surfaces, opening up new possibilities for smartphone designs. Since the material is also resistant to heat (up to 930 degrees) and as airtight as regular glass, it's also well-suited for high-efficiency OLED manufacturing. Such screens need to be absolutely airtight, which plastics often can't promise, and a new generation of OLED manufacturing techniques would warp Gorilla Glass thanks to extreme heat stress.
OLED technology researcher Universal Display (Nasdaq: PANL ) has been working on curved displays for years. This could be the missing link that finally brings flexible screens onto store shelves.
Who says OLEDs have all the fun?
But the LCD gang isn't sitting on its hands while OLED screens pass it by. Manufacturing titan 3M (NYSE: MMM ) is showing off some cool improvements to LCD backlights at the ongoing Displayweek conference.
First, an optical film named OneFilm takes three layers of the optical trickery that goes into traditional LCD backlights and does it all in one step. With this hyperefficient approach, LCD screens can be made thinner and brighter -- all at a lower cost and a simpler, less error-prone manufacturing process. The product is aimed at TV screens, digital signage, and notebooks, but it should translate just as nicely into smaller smartphone and tablet displays.
But that's not all. 3M also took the stage with nanotech expert Nanosys to present an even cooler LCD backlight. Using quantum dot technology on another thin film, the product, christened Quantum Dot Enhancement Film, promises an even more efficient LCD screen architecture where the film amplifies the backlight -- and with 50% better color accuracy than today's top-of-the-line LED-lit displays.
What's a quantum dot? It's a kind of light-emitting semiconductor where the size of the crystal determines the color of light shooting out from it. Although all light-emitting particles in a quantum dot product are made from exactly the same material, the size of each particle determines the color of light emanating from it. When used as an LCD backlight filter, this results in brighter lights and lower power needs. It depends on effects described by quantum mechanics to manipulate photons. If the energy state of photons excites you as much as it does me, this is pretty awesome stuff.
“Improving color performance for LCDs with drop-in solutions will bring a stunning new visual experience to the consumer and a competitive advantage to the LCD manufacturer against new display technologies such as OLED,” says Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove. Yep, these people sure keep a wary eye on one another.
And they'd better watch their backs for incoming daggers, too. Chip designer QUALCOMM (Nasdaq: QCOM ) scored big points at the Displayweek confab with a presentation of its innovative mirasol display tech. OLED displays generate their own light, and LCD screens need a backlight, but mirasol displays reflect the light around you. Using semiconductor manufacturing techniques to mirror the shimmering colors seen in butterfly wings and peacock feathers, mirasol promises brilliant colors at ultra-low electric power levels. Already available in a handful of e-book readers made for the Chinese market, mirasol displays will likely filter into the U.S., smartphones, and tablets over the next couple of years.
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