Electronic Design

Transparent Displays Move From Sci-Fi Into Digital Signage

Fans of science fiction have long enjoyed the “cinemagic” special effects artistry that produces the  transparent displays found in imaginary worlds on the silver screen. From movie hits like Blade Runner to Minority Report, from Avatar to The Avengers, filmmakers have painted a compelling vision of the future and all of them seem to agree—we will be interacting with transparent digital displays in the future.

Commercially viable transparent flat-panel technology dates back to the late 1990s when Planar first demonstrated transparent and segmented electroluminescent (TASEL) displays at the Society for Information Displays (SID), an annual meeting of the display industry. Fast-forward to the present, and display manufacturers are demonstrating emerging and exciting developments in transparent LCDs.

The vision for larger color displays began with vending machines and commercial refrigerators, because those implementations already included a glass face. As we look forward to 2013, the leading brand retailers are re-imagining the shopping experience with multiple types of transparent technology products.

Retail fixture manufacturers, architects, and retail development firms are designing merchandise displays utilizing digital windows. Featuring dynamic information amidst the merchandise attracts customers and engages them in deeper and innovative ways.

By tying social and mobile marketing campaigns with e-commerce, retailers are gaining greater reach beyond the store. And by changing the use of video into a versatile architectural material, these innovative designers are taking the Hollywood vision to the next level with digital signage.

With the possibilities created by content and design, today’s leading designers are finding ways to combine transparent LCDs with modern natural interfaces such as touch, gesture, and head tracking to complete the sci-fi effect.

Design Challenges

Designing for see-through LCDs is easy when you remember that transparent LCDs are the dynamic, modern equivalent of printing on overhead transparencies. This creates implications for content development and industrial design.

Any display expert will tell you that content is king. For transparent displays, compelling content that utilizes the 3D-like appearance and the hide-and-show effects can make an enormous difference in an implementation.

Content creation for transparent LCDs looks complex, but it’s actually very simple because these displays don’t require any special software. Like any display, you just plug your source (PC, media player, etc.) into it, and it will run any format that the source can output.

“Anything that is white in the content shows clear, anything black is opaque, and hues and saturations in between can reveal or conceal the objects behind the display,” says Cris Derr, the product director for the Planar LookThru transparent LCD (see the figure).


Transparent displays appeal to brand managers and technologists alike when the content is compelling. The Planar LookThru transparent LCD front surface delivers a wide variety of messaging while featuring the actual product inside the box, maximizing transparency while delivering vibrant colors and delighting the discerning eye of brand managers. 

The content can be purpose-built in professional design tools or created in Microsoft PowerPoint, Flash, QuickTime, or virtually any content creation tool. Unlike other emerging display technologies, transparent LCDs require no special processing, content rendering, or glasses to achieve an eye-catching presentation. This is great news for designers looking to integrate this type of display technology.

Accommodating power requirements for transparent LCDs has never been simpler since most models simply use an external ac adapter. Today’s transparent LCDs usually require 100 to 240 V ac (50/60 Hz) and consume 125 W.

Beyond the content, there are other design considerations. State-of-the-art transparent LCDs require a contained, brightly lit space for best color and readability. Just like an overhead transparency placed on a dark surface, colors can lose contrast and vibrancy if the display is not lit properly. The best implementations feature enclosures that optimize the display performance, while lighting the merchandise inside.

Although the vision of a window wall of glass as a display is compelling, the reality is that LCDs (transparent or otherwise) aren’t light sources unto themselves. They require a backlight or edge-lighting to achieve vivid and compelling imagery and video.

This variation creates opportunities for the design of enclosures that match the environment and fit the applications. Designers have envisioned everything including transparent merchandise displays in retail environments, trophy cases in college athletic centers, transparent microwave faces, and museum displays describing artifacts displayed securely in a box.

In spaces like retail where technology’s potential meets the very human enterprise of marketing, the possibilities for design are endless. Imagine enclosures built into jewelry cases, mounted on walls, or even as transparent flat surfaces that conceal and reveal activity below. The future that was so compellingly presented in those blockbuster films is now a reality and coming to a store near you!
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