Computing's New Screen Gems

Display technologies are moving rapidly to thinner, more flexible, and efficient systems. Even CRTs are getting rethought

At first glance, the display of Sony's (SNE ) e-book reader, called Librie, looks oh-so ordinary. But the simplicity of its glass-encased screen is deceiving. Not only is the display lighter and thinner than your typical flat-panel screen but it doesn't require power to maintain an image -- only to turn the pages. A batch of four AAA batteries can keep it going for 10,000 page turns, or nearly seven volumes of War and Peace. That's at least 100 times more efficient than your typical display.

What's more, "it has more of a newspaper-like look," says Darren Bischoff, senior marketing manager at startup E Ink in Cambridge, Mass., whose display material was used. "It has high resolution and is easy to read in sunlight or dim light."

Indeed, Librie may herald a new era in computing. The display technology it uses could, in a few years, lead to screens that use very little power, offer superb image quality, and are able to bend, fold, even roll up. This rare combination of capabilities could spawn scores of new applications such as displays that can be folded like newspapers, embedded into fancy furniture, or rolled into tubes so military commanders can take a ream of digital maps into the field.


  Such advanced displays could hit the market within three years and are so promising that some experts say they could replace today's reigning display technology known as liquid crystal display, or LCD, in applications as early as 2007. The likelihood of such an impending clash is setting off a battle between LCD makers Samsung, Sharp (SHCAY ) and joint-venture partners Toshiba and Matsushita (MC ), vs. new display makers Motorola (MOT ) and its partners. These companies hope to grab a chunk of the flat-panel display market, which is pegged to grow 39%, to $60 billion this year, and continue growing at double-digit rates for years to come, according to consultancy DisplaySearch in Austin.

Long in the works, new display technologies are now gaining increased government and commercial interest -- as well as funding. Seeking ways to reduce space occupied by displays in its mobile command centers and vehicles, the Pentagon invested $43.7 million over the past five years in the Army Flexible Display Center (FDC) in Tempe, Ariz. Opened in April, the center should accelerate development of flexible displays by coming up with cheaper and more efficient processes for manufacturing display materials such as that from E Ink. The center hopes to release its first prototype, based on E Ink's technology, next year, says Director Greg Raupp.

Since flexible displays easily go into a wide range of shapes and sizes, they're the holy grail of display technology. How do they work? At E Ink, the display's surface is covered in tiny microcapsules containing tiny white and black particles suspended in clear fluid. When negatively charged, white particles move to the top of the capsule and become visible to the user -- that's how text is formed.


  When a thin film of the microcapsules is applied to plastic film, the resulting display is flexible. The trick here, though, is in creating plastic film that's durable enough to protect the images and keep them from degrading. Already, electronics heavyweight Koninklijke Philips Electronics (PHG ) has created thin but durable plastic foil that can protect E Ink's material from being spoiled by water and air.

Philips also has designed special electronic components that bend. And it hopes to start a pilot line for flexible displays in the next year. Initially, these will be aimed at niche applications such as electronic readers, says Edzer Huipema, senior scientist at Philips Research in the Netherlands. The display's price is still being worked out, but Philips says it already has interested customers, which it can't yet name.

The displays by E Ink and Philips will be monochrome, though their goal is to create flexible color displays. E Ink is experimenting with shining light onto the microcapsules through a filter, which would color that light in an appropriate shade. The company expects to have a rigid color display available in 2006, with a flexible version soon thereafter, says E Ink's Bischoff. "You'll be able to read it in bright sunlight. And it will be in color, which is something that today's displays don't allow for," he says.


  By that time, E Ink will be facing serious competition from alternative display technologies. Imaging heavyweight Eastman Kodak (EK ), for one, is working on making flexible displays with organic light-emitting diode technology. In OLEDs, the display is made of layers of organic material, sandwiched between special layers of plastic, which becomes luminescent when charged. That's in sharp contrast to LCDs, whose surface simply lets light shone from behind the display pass through.

As a result, OLEDs offer multiple advantages over LCDs: They require a lot less power and offer better image quality. That means they're easier to view in sunlight. Flexible OLED displays could become available within two years. "Compared to LCD, OLED technology is really only in its infancy," says Dona Flamme, general manager and vice-president of the display group at Kodak.

Before OLEDs can be used on a widespread basis, they need to extend their lifespans -- now hovering around 10,000 hours of operation, or some three years of TV viewing. Kodak is developing new organic materials and chemicals that make the display more durable and prevent it from interacting with water and air, which cause organic materials within the display to decompose. In some experiments, Kodak has upped the displays' lifetime by 100 times, says Flamme.


  Kodak also is trying to iron out the wrinkles in producing larger-size OLED displays, which are difficult to make in volume. One problem is that when forming a color image, every pixel on the display has to be colored red, yellow, or blue. And that requires great precision, which is difficult and expensive to achieve in mass production.

Kodak's solution: It has developed a so-called white OLED display, in which all pixels are white and where the colors are created by shining light onto the display through a color filter, which applies the right shades to the dots on the screen. That greatly simplifies manufacturing and reduces the overall device's cost, says Flamme. Plus, the device consumes less power.

Moving to a new manufacturing technology is still expensive, and that's why some companies are opting for improving oldies like cathode-ray-tube (CRT) technology. Motorola has decided to do away with the electron gun, a contraption responsible for the display's bulkiness and that shoots electrons from the back of the display toward its screen. When the electrons hit phosphors coating the inside of the screen, the phosphors glow, producing an image on the screen.


  Instead, Motorola is using nanotechnology to grow, in low temperatures, clusters of tiny carbon nanotubes -- 50 times less than the width of a human hair in length -- behind every dot on the screen. Each tube acts as a little electron gun shooting to create an image. "We can grow them where we want them," says James Jaskie, chief scientist for Motorola Physical Sciences Research Laboratory in Austin. "We also grow them in clusters, for redundancy. So in case of defects, any one of the tubes can take place of another."

The resulting NED (nano emissive display) screen is no more than a half-inch thick and offers image quality equal to a CRT display and often higher than a LCD's, says Jaskie. Better yet, NED displays, expected to be available from Samsung in 2006, could cost about as much as similar CRTs, he says. Now, Motorola is working on growing the nanotubes on plastic, in hopes of creating in a few years its prototype of a color flexible display.

The effect of all these new technologies is that they "are making the LCD makers work harder," says analyst Jennifer Gallo of researcher IDC. Electronics maker Toshiba has been experimenting with innovative packaging that allows it to polish the glass that protects the liquid crystal to create significantly thinner and lighter displays, says Steve Vrablik, business development director for LCDs at Toshiba America Electronic Components. Other manufacturers have been tweaking the displays' chemistry and experimenting with 3-D imaging.

Today, "the LCD technology is good enough for 90% of applications," says analyst Bert McComas of display consultancy DisplaySearch in Austin, Tex. "It's the various fringes of the market that are looking for differentiation." Sure, the new display technologies will start at the fringes. But they could work their way into the mainstream faster than many expect today.

By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.