In 2012 it was a flexible e-ink display. In 2013 it was the slightly flexible OLED display used in the G Flexsmartphone. And now in 2014 LG has produced a massive, 18-inch OLED display that can be rolled up into a tight cylinder with a radius of just 3 centimeters (1.2 inches). In addition, LG has also announced an 18-inch OLED display that is highly transparent. By 2017, LG thinks it can combine both of these prototypes to create a 60-inch, UHD (4K) display that is both flexible and transparent. Is the dream of a flexible, fold-up “e-paper” display finally upon us? Is that the death knell of the printed page that I can hear tolling in the distance?
The flexible 18-inch OLED display has a fairly low resolution of 1280×810. LG (understandly) isn’t saying much about the underlying technologies, but the main breakthrough seems to be the use of polyimide for the display’s backplane. Polyimides are strong, flexible plastics that are already used extensively in the electronics industry — for example in the ribbon that attaches a laptop’s display to the motherboard, which is put through huge stresses during thousands of open/close cycles. LG says it achieved “maximum curvature radius” because polyimide allowed for a much thinner (and thus more flexible) backplane than “conventional plastic.”
LG’s 18-inch transparent display has a transmittance of 30%, up from around 10% for previous transparent displays. As you can see in the image above, 30% looks pretty darn good. The high level of transmittance was achieved by reducing the “haze” caused by display’s underlying electronics to just 2%. You may not realize it, but every single pixel in your smartphone or laptop’s display is wired up, with a large number of switching transistors thrown in for good measure too. This circuitry is so small that you can’t actually see it (and materials like ITO that are used to fabricate the transistors are mostly transparent), but they block enough light to make a material hazy. LG says it also uses “transparent pixel design” technology, though it doesn’t give any more details. (OLED pixels, if built on a transparent substrate, are naturally fairly transparent anyway.)
While both of these prototypes are big steps forward, LG has an even more impressive timeline for the future: By 2017 it wants to create a 60-inch OLED display that is both flexible and transparent (and more flexible and transparent than the prototypes) — and up the resolution to UHD (4K, 3840×2160). According to the head of R&D at LG Display, these twin advances will allow LG to “[lead] the future display market.”
Back here in reality, of course, while the Galaxy S5′s OLED display is probably the best in the world, we’re still waiting for larger OLED screens and TVs that don’t require you to hock a major organ on the black market to fund your questionable obsession with bleeding edge tech. There’s no word on how much a roll-up 60-inch OLED display would cost, but I’m guessing you would probably have to choose between it and a new super yacht.
Pricing and availability aside, though, it’s clear that we’re moving fairly quickly towards a future that’s filled with curved and flexible devices. It’s important to remember that a flexible display is only part of the equation, though: You still need to power the device somehow. With breakthroughs in wireless power delivery, though, maybe the rigidity of lithium-ion batteries won’t actually be a roadblock. We’ll find out in the next couple of Years..