By Doug Bedell
The Dallas Morning News
The decade's most exciting advancement in flat and thin display technology is already creeping into our lives.
It recently made its silver screen debut as the digital readout for the high-tech razor used by James Bond in "Die Another Day."
Rudimentary forms are now used to produce the vibrant colors on the outside of millions of clamshell-style cellphones.
Before long, its ultra-thin, low-power brilliance may show up as "tellycellies," hybrid television/cellphones rendering miniature high-resolution images.
The little screens with such big potential are powered by organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs (pronounced oh-leds.) Fans of the technology predict they will replace the liquid crystal displays that now dominate personal electronics.
"The contrast is far superior and the colors are just brighter," says Kimberly Allen, directory of technology and strategic research for iSuppli/Stanford Resources, a leader in documenting trends in electronic displays. "It's got a lot going for it."
Enough, in fact, that Allen's company says purchases of OLEDs could reach $3.1 billion by 2009.
Beyond that, OLEDs can be manufactured the same way a printer spreads ink onto paper. That means they can be printed onto pliant plastic sheets, creating televisions and bright signs that wrap around curved objects.
Some companies are developing ways to use this flexible OLED, or FOLED, as a rolled-up computer monitor. Others intend to sew it right into clothing.
Active-matrix OLED material is unique. It is fashioned out of carbon-based dyes - the organic part - that emit light when electricity passes through. The dyes, discovered by accident in a Kodak lab in 1985, can be spread only a molecule thick so that rich, high-resolution video screens can be made thinner than a human hair.
Because the electrified dyes give off their own light, no backlighting is needed. Without the need for backlighting, OLEDs can drastically extend battery life on portable devices such as cellphones, PDAs and notebook computers.
OLEDs can react much quicker than other flat-panel technologies, making them ideal for gaming and rendering fast-motion video. They can also be viewed from severe angles of up to 165 degrees.
A clear version, transparent OLED or TOLED, is being designed as a visor for combat helmets. The idea is to allow soldiers to receive live images and instructions without obscuring vision in the battlefield.
In consumer electronics, active-matrix OLEDs may eventually wind up the technology of choice for high-definition, large-format television screens, says Barry Young, analyst for the Austin-based research firm DisplaySearch.
"They'll make wonderful televisions, but it's going to be beyond 2007 when we begin to see that start emerging," Young says. Meanwhile, lots of work remains be done on some of the technology's shortcomings, he says.
Right now, the dyes degrade over different lengths of time, and they don't stay viable long enough to be used in gizmos that are constantly running. Experts agree that the first uses will be limited to small displays now sporting liquid crystal - PDAs, cellphones, digital cameras and camcorders.
"My own feeling is that it will never be suitable for computer monitors," says Young. "They just don't do very well with whites like you have with Word or Excel spreadsheets."
But that's changing, developers say. The whites are improving, and the life span of OLED panels is getting longer.
The first consumer uses appeared in 1999, when cellphone makers employed a simple form as a secondary display on the outside of closed clamshell handsets.
These "passive-matrix" OLEDs, crisp and lively, have since been incorporated into high-end car stereos such as Pioneer's DEH-P7500MP. Philips-Norelco uses them to show remaining shaving time and other data in its Spectra 8894XL shaver, James Bond's equipment of choice.
Active-matrix OLEDs are not far behind. Kodak's LS633 digital camera is the largest brought to market thus far. The camera, not yet available in the United States, is an overseas hit with its 128x33-pixel display, which appears bright even in direct sunlight. Cellphone makers including Motorola and Sanyo are diving into the technology.
The largest sheet of active-matrix OLED material yet produced measures about 20 inches diagonally, says Allen. But as factories expand, so will the size of the OLED sheets suitable for high-def TVs and commercial billboards.
"I think it will be the end of the decade before we see any large formats," she says. "But they're coming."
© 2004, The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.