U of T lab sees potential in organic display technology

A group of University of Toronto researchers say they are the first Canadians to produce a display technology that could one day wallpaper your house.

The experimental technology is called organic light emitting device (or OLED).

It’s flexible, so could fit any form factor or even mold itself to the shape of your lap.

“”What differentiates this device from conventional LEDs is that the molecules are very flexible. You can make any substrate you want,”” said Zheng-Hong Lu, the project’s lead researcher at U of T. “”That’s really opened up a whole potential display media.””

Lu has been working with his team on the project for about five years and has developed OLEDs made on a number of flexible materials like transparent plastic film and reflective metal foil.

Lu said OLED could represent the next wave of display technology. In recent years, Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) has made some inroads against Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) in the monitor and display markets. “”Many experts consider (OLED) the next major display device replacing LCD,”” said Lu.

Because of its flexible design, the OLED manufacturing process would be substantially different from the way conventional displays are produced today. “”Like newspapers, you could print rolls and rolls of displays,”” said Lu. “”With big companies willing to invest lots of money, I’m really optimistic about some sort of commercial device.””

Lu said he hopes to see commercially-viable products in the market in as soon as a few years. Further down the line, flexible laptops that could be rolled up and stuffed in a back pocket may be a reality, or even entire rolls of OLED wallpaper that display a moving tableau.

The commercial applications of OLED are very real and are already here, albeit in a much smaller form factor. Kodak, which owns an OLED patent, has an Easy Share 633 digital camera with an embedded OLED display. Samsung is now shipping its E700 series cell phone with an external OLED screen.

Those are displays of only a few inches. Making the leap to full-size OLED for something the size of a computer monitor or TV is still a distant goal, according to IDC analyst Jennifer Gallo.

She conservatively estimates that it could be at least 2010 before such products are available. “”It’s been proven that it can be done, but not for large displays. There are a lot of people focusing on the production and the manufacturing process of OLED, such as Dupont, and they’re still working on it. It’s not easy,”” she said.

The product has limitations that have yet to be overcome. Like a break-and-shake glowstick that provides a light source only for a short time, OLED has some serious lifespan concerns, Gallo said.

“”It’s a chemical and there’s a lifetime to that chemical and how long it will emit light for,”” she said.

But if that problem can be solved, the future for OLED looks bright. Aside from the inherent advantage of a flexible display, OLED produces an extremely clear image that can be viewed from multiple angles. An issue with colour-screen LCD is that the colour tends to fade when viewed from the side.

Right now, even the promise of OLED displays is having a big impact on monitor market. “”It has made LCD manufacturers step up to the plate faster in terms of improving their product quality,”” said Gallo. “”If they think there’s a competing display technology, it forces them to become better at what they do.””

Lu admits that turning your house into one giant monitor is a futuristic concept, but with more research and industry support, the writing may be on the wall.

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