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Flexible And Not So Flexible Displays Set To Soar?

Flexible And Not So Flexible Displays Set To Soar?

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Each year around this time, Electronic Design publishes its State of the Industry articles, which take a look at what’s happening in industry vertical markets such as consumer, medical, and military electronics. One area that seems on the verge of exploding in the consumer electronics market is flexible displays.

Back in January, NamSung (Stephen) Woo, president of Samsung Electronics, delivered a keynote address at the International CES, where he introduced a few prototype smart phones using flexible displays. He delivered another keynote address at the recently concluded Design Automation Conference (DAC), where he again spoke about flexible displays.

The audiences for these two industry shows are quite different, of course, so his message to the DAC audience was more about design possibilities than futuristic products. He started by saying that he prefers keynotes over paper presentations. When you present a paper, he said, you have to tell the audience the problem you’re trying to solve and then explain your solution, which, by the way, has to be better than previous solutions. For a keynote, you can just throw out problems to the audience and ask them to find a solution.

In this talk, Woo showed the guts of a Samsung smart phone, which has 12 chips on the circuit board. Knowing that the DAC audience is renowned for developing systems on a chip, he called the board a “system on 12 chips.” Next, he showed the audience the same prototype as he did at CES—a smart phone with a flexible organic LED (OLED) display. He then gave the audience some food for thought. He asked whether it might be possible to put those 12 chips into a single system-on-chip (SoC) and make it flexible enough to glue onto the back of the flexible display—a challenge sure to invigorate the DAC audience.

Woo also noted that at CES, Samsung was the only company showing a flexible display for smart phones. Since then, he said, several other companies have demonstrated flexible displays.

One notable introduction was at the recently concluded Society for Information Display (SID) conference, where LG Display unveiled a 5-in. plastic-based flexible active-matrix OLED (AMOLED) panel. Although LG did not release any technical details, the display is reportedly unbreakable and very thin, making it suitable for a variety of applications.

The Market For Flexible Displays

According to an IHS report entitled “Flexible Display Technology and Market Forecast,” the demand for flexible displays is set to undergo massive growth during the next seven years. This growth will occur not only in the smart-phone area, via products like the Samsung prototype, but also with giant screens mounted on buildings.

A nearly 250 times expansion in shipments of flexible displays is expected to occur from 2013 through 2020. Global shipments are set to soar to 792 million units in 2020, up from 3.2 million in 2013. Market revenue will rise to $41.3 billion, up from just $100,000 during the same period.

Vinita Jakhanwal, director for mobile and emerging displays and technology at IHS, thinks flexible displays will create whole classes of products and enable exciting new applications that were either impractical or impossible before. These applications include smart phones with displays that curve around the sides, smart watches with wraparound screens, and smart phones, tablets, and PCs with rollout displays. In addition, you may see giant video advertisements on curved building walls and any other applications a designer can imagine.

The IHS report includes four generations of flexible display technology. The first generation is the durable display panels now entering the market. These panels employ a flexible substrate to attain superior thinness and unbreakable ruggedness, but are flat and cannot be bent or rolled. Second-generation flexible displays are bendable and conformable. They can be molded to curved surfaces, maximizing space on small form-factor products like smart phones.The third generation consists of truly flexible and rollable displays that can be manipulated by the user. These displays will enable a new generation of devices. The fourth generation consists of disposable displays that cost so little that they can serve as a replacement for paper.

A New Kind Of Rigid Display

As I was returning from my trip to DAC, I almost bumped into a new kind of rigid display in the baggage area at LaGuardia Airport. I say “new” since I had never seen a display quite like this before, although it was introduced at this airport as well as several others throughout the country about a year ago. The display looked very much like a female airline agent (see the figure). By that I mean the display was not your typical rectangular shape, but the shape of the agent herself. She’s called an Airport Virtual Assistant and reportedly cost $60,000 for a six-month rental from a company called AirportOne.com.

I took a closer look and noticed that the “agent” is actually an image projected onto a piece of glass about 0.75 in. thick. The image was coming from a small projection camera right behind her. Since she is locked into position, so to speak, she doesn’t move much except for her eyes and mouth as she is talking and her thumbs as she twiddles them between pauses in a 90-second information-packed loop, which reactivates anytime a person is within 30 feet of the apparatus. She also has a somewhat disconcerting way of following you with her eyes as you walk from side to side.

I don’t have any market projections for this type of display, but it may only be a matter of time before you routinely find these avatars providing customer service in your neck of the woods.

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This file type includes high resolution graphics and schematics.
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