Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bendable Displays In The Near Future?

Story first appeared in USA Today.

In the film The Graduate, cynical young protagonist Benjamin Braddock is pulled aside by an elder with sage advice: "Just one word. … Plastics," he whispers. "There's a great future in plastics."

The line became part of Hollywood lore, underpinning the yawning gulf between the counterculture and the status quo.

But 45 years after it entered the American zeitgeist, the punch line is serious stuff for tech companies such as Samsung and Hewlett-Packard. Flexible-display technology, the pliable plastic casings that many predict will be the next iteration of laptops and tablets, is morphing into all sorts of cool gadgets of the near future.

In a few years, bendable displays will be everywhere, adorning coffee mugs, newspapers, car dashboards and sunroofs, white boards, backpacks, refrigerators — you name it.  Within five years, every surface becomes a display.

The question, though, is when? And to what extent?

Flexible displays — computing screens that can be rolled, folded or flexed — can take the form of personal devices, such as an eReader, or larger surface displays, such as furniture or wallpaper.

Yet the flexible narrative has experienced fits and starts for years, and it still isn't likely to take hold until 2015.

The field is littered with noble failures and unfulfilled promises.

Philips Electronics spinoff Polymer Vision promoted its flexible eReader for years but declared bankruptcy before bringing the device to market. Hewlett-Packard has been developing printable Mylar displays that it imagines could be used for candy wrappers, armband computers for the military or living-room wallpaper, but the displays are still several years from commercialization.

The most likely scenario is that wildly popular tablets will be the first iteration of flexible technology.

Other emerging technology, such as wearables, embedded devices and mini-projectors, might catch on sooner when new manufacturing processes ramp up.  Consumers would love to bend or fold devices.  Rather than carry a phone and a tablet, you could unfold a large screen from your phone.

Any surface will do …

The promise of unbreakable, lightweight, non-glass displays has researchers and engineers at HP, Samsung and elsewhere toiling away in hopes of tapping into a potential gold mine.

Despite ups and downs, sales for flexible displays are expected to zoom to $8.2 billion in 2018 from $85 million in 2008.

Foldable technology is expected to take form in:

•Wristbands. HP is developing prototypes with the U.S. Army of a wristband for foot soldiers that is something out of the old Dick Tracy comic strip. HP also is huddling with the NFL about the possibility of an electronic wristband for quarterbacks to view and call plays.
Soldiers would be fitted with a bendable wristband that could also be sewn into their uniform's cuff. The small display could function as a combination Global Positioning System, shortwave radio and field manual for vehicle repairs. Such a device would significantly reduce the estimated 70 pounds of equipment typically lugged by soldiers, without sacrificing ruggedness.

A solar-powered wrist unit is set to undergo field testing by the military later this year.

The NFL could replace the balky helmet microphone now used with a plastic band for quarterbacks and defensive players to relay and view formations. The NFL had no comment.

Another possible use is digital bracelets for hospital patients, says Carl Taussig, director of HP Labs' Advanced Display Research.

•Kitchen counters. Microsoft's home of the future — think Ozzie and Harriet meets Futurama— is chock-full of digital displays, none more eye-catching than its kitchen counter.

The marble surface doubles as a display capable of input for ingredients and recipes. The graphics are beamed from an overhead projector, which could become a staple of homes within five years.

•Cars. Toyota showed a model at the Tokyo auto show late last year and the Detroit auto show this year that it described as a "smartphone on four wheels." In Tokyo, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda unfurled the Fun-Vii (vehicle interactive Internet), which lets drivers change the car's color — both exterior and interior. Flexible screens embedded in the car's body allow the Fun-Vii to display multiple colors.

•Buildings. Remember the dystopian city in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner with screens that show advertisements built into buildings?

NanoLumens designs and engineers large, energy-efficient LED displays for commercial use. Its flagship product is the world's first flexible LED screen that is 112 inches diagonal, an inch thick and only 80 pounds.

The NanoFlex product is used to show video on a curved wall at the NASCAR Museum in Charlotte. A NanoSlim product is installed at the Mac Cosmetics store in New York's SoHo neighborhood

The thin but durable screens are being tested for advertising use at trade shows and in subways and airports. You can pressure wash it and bounce a beer bottle off of it.

China, home to some of the world's largest buildings, is a prime candidate for even larger displays.

What are consequences, if any?

So what's wrong with this picture of a seemingly boundless market for flexible displays?

The immense promise is undercut by nagging issues, such as the difficulty in properly bending silicon-containing electronic components.

Costly, time-consuming manufacturing processes also remain a steep hurdle. There are plenty of obstacles, none more so than glass-based displays.

The ticklish task of laying electronic components on glass, stainless steel or plastic is a tricky, multiple-step process that can be pricey.

The industry will only achieve mass production at affordable prices when it makes the inevitable, and necessary, shift to roll-to-roll manufacturing — as is customary in the newspaper industry. And that's a few years away.

Germany-based PolyIC is making flexible touch-screens. Corning has shown flexible glass that can be used in roll-to-roll manufacturing, and a low-end display from Samsung is a prime candidate for such a process. E Ink, Plastic Logic, Infinite Power Solutions and Universal Display all are doing interesting things in the field, but it is a work in progress.

Bendable displays can be made, but mass manufacturing is the obstacle.

There have been advances — LG just announced it started mass production of its electronic paper display product, with a planned launch in Europe next month — but few.

Until then, flexible displays will be visible in smaller, more modest designs such as smart security tags, shelf and food labels and loyalty cards with memory.

PARC, the storied research center that inspired many of the features in the original Macintosh computer, is tinkering with plastic memory, chips on consumer goods packaging, sensors on helmets, and more.

One project is a wearable patch with sensors to monitor a patient's heart rate, temperature and blood pressure. PARC is also looking at the concept of a flexible battery to save energy and space.

It all makes for an intriguing game of promise vs. patience.

Not every surface will be a display, but it could be. There are no barriers.

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