Remembering all the acronyms for the different types of TVs out there can be a bit like staring into a bowl of alphabet soup. There's CRT, which stands for the old, bulky cathode-ray tube set. That's being replaced by the two dominant flat-screen technologies—LCDs, or liquid-crystal displays, and PDPs, or plasma display panels. Within a year, Canon could be selling SEDs, or surface-conduction electron-emitter displays, which promise a clearer, truer picture than the other two.
Now there's one more to commit to memory: OEL. Organic electroluminescent displays have been touted by industry executives and experts as a step up in thin TVs. Also known as organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, they're even thinner than sets made with LCDs and PDPs. That's because OEL displays don't use a backlight, like LCDs. Nor do they require a pocket of space for a chemical reaction, like PDPs. OELs feature a polymer layer with organic "pixels" printed directly onto it; the layer itself emits light when activated by an electrical current. Because there's no backlight they consume less energy than LCDs.
Sony's 11-inch prototype (pictured above) is a wonder of science. It's no more than 11 millimeters (about half an inch) thick and has a crispness that's nearly as good as the flat-panel TV technologies on the market. In geek-speak, its resolution comes in at 1024 pixels by 600 pixels. It also can show action scenes without the blur that still plagues even the best of the LCD screens. (Sony has displayed a 27-inch prototype, as well.)
OELs are attractive for another reason: They should cost less to make since they could be rolled out with inkjet or screen printing technology, unlike LCD and PDP screens which are cut from giant sheets of glass.
At least that's the theory behind it all. Most TV industry analysts doubt OELs will replace current flat-panel technology any time soon. It could be years before they're even a significant share of the market. There are as of yet no reliable forecasts for OEL and OLED TVs. I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that an 11-inch set probably won't win over many converts right away. (Besides, where would you put a TV that small? The kitchen, maybe?) It's generated plenty of buzz, though. Attendees at a recent display conference in Tokyo lined up six-deep to get a glimpse at Sony's booth.
Yasunori Kijima, a researcher and senior manager in Sony's display device development group who has worked on the technology since 1994, says his group can produce OELs at low enough costs to make such TVs commercially viable. It's hard to dispute that: Sony has been churning out smaller, 3.8-inch OEL displays for gadgets since 2004.
Because the organic materials used can be ruined by water and oxygen, Kijima's team had to develop special a sealing technology for the displays. That's helped ensure that the sets last more than a year or two, though Kijima wouldn't give any specific longevity figures. "OEL displays would no problem outlasting PDP screens, which actually wear out very quickly," he says.
But other tech makers remain skeptical. "I'm not so sure Sony can make OELs last long enough to be of use in a TV," says one NEC engineer, who wouldn't give his name. "TV makers say the average set lasts seven years but it actually should last twice as long." An official at Toshiba Matsushita Display Technologies, which uses OELs for portable devices, says the shorter life expectancy of OELs make them suitable for cell phones and other gadgets that get tossed after a couple of years.
Sony currently relies on different production techniques for the 11-inch and the 27-inch sets. So while the company is rushing to mass-produce the 11-inch sets at its LCD factory in Aichi prefecture, central Japan, by later this year, doing so won't ensure that it can make the gargantuan 40- to 60-inch screens that American, Japanese and European consumers crave. It seems OEL's heyday is still years away--if it ever comes.