A New Light On CES

OLED“If there’s one thing that 15 years of attending trade shows has taught me is that crowd density is a great compass.  Sure, there are always hidden gems to be routed out, but if you’re trying to locate as many wonders as you can in the shortest amount of time, just look for the most crowded booths.  And if you spy one that is awash in camera flashes, you’ve struck gold.

In the midst of the Sony Pavilion (already jammed nearly to capacity) was a dense gaggle of gawkers all vying for position to get a close look at something.  Through the occasional break in the crowd, I spied what appeared to be a handful of smallish LCD TVs.  No way… That can’t be it…

Now, please bear in mind that this is taking place at CES in Las Vegas.  You can’t swing a cat without smacking it into at least 3 LCD screens no matter WHERE you are in the show.  And that includes the bathrooms.

So what was so special about these little TVs?  Well, after a little jockeying (I grew up in Manhattan, so I know how to use my knees and elbows), I made it to the pole position to get a good look…  Ahhhh.  Wow.  Sony has beautifully harnessed the power of OLED on an ultra-thin TV-Sized display.  The depth of color, brightness and resolution was absolutely mesmerizing.

For those of you not familiar with OLED (and I wasn’t until late-last year), the technology used is different from the familiar LCD displays in a few important ways.  OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode.  Oled DiagramEssentially, an electrochemical reaction is used to generate a tiny bit of light.  By applying a small voltage through a sandwich of clear substrates encasing a chemical compound, the chemical can be made to emit light.  Varying (or combining) the chemical compounds and the voltage, you can create a very wide array of colors.  And since the reaction itself creates the light, there is no need for a power-hungry backlight as is the case with standard LCD technology.

The process used to lay down the layers of reactive compounds is very similar to how an inkjet works.  Essentially you can ‘Print’ the successive OLED layers onto the substrate like printing old-fashioned color separations.  Using precise instruments, the resolution of the display can be made very fine.  For example, an HD display on your cellphone is not out of the question.

The recent advances in OLED technology has created the potential for some staggering changes in how information can be displayed.  Two things in particular are the ability to print OLED layers on a flexible substrate and the very low power needed to drive the display.Electronic Paper  How cool would it be to unroll a full size monitor to connect to your PDA?  Print moving images on boxes of cereal?  Multi-lingual keyboards whose keys change characters based on the language being used?  Heads-up displays printed right on your windshield?  How about mimetic materials that can change patterns and colors?  Think of the military applications for dynamic camouflage.  Clothing that can change based on your mood or location?  And since the OLED process is so similar to inkjet printing, can a personal OLED printer be too far in the future?  A number of think-tanks have shown the viability of printing complete working microprocessor using conductive inks.  That puts the potential to print a working computing device complete with display right onto a variety of materials.  Again, wow.

Ah, but this wonderful new technology comes with a down-side.   Namely the short lifespan of the compounds used in the light emitting process.  The current average lifespan of on OLED display is around 5,000 hours.  Just about 7 months.  However, many manufacturers are now citing lifespans of over 10,000 hours which seems to be the consensual tipping point for commercial viability.

Any way you slice it, the potential applications for this fantastic new technology are infinite and exciting.  I, for one, will be watching closely…