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Flexible OLED Displays

Mobile device technology is changing -- becoming smaller, wearable, and less obtrusive. The components that drive this technology is being miniaturized all the time; many people know anecdotes about the modern mobile phone being more powerful than a room-filling supercomputer of yesteryear. But the technology in mobile devices is progressing in other ways, and one area of intense innovation is in the display. Flexible OLED displays are one area of recent development, and they may point the way towards the future of mobile devices.


What are Flexible OLEDs?

Flexible OLEDs, also called FOLEDs, build on the principle of an organic light emitting diode (OLED) mounted on a typically plastic flexible substrate. OLEDs differ from the more common LCD by using organic compounds that emit light directly when an electrical current is passed over them. LCDs use an array of crystals that can be re-arranged by a current, but then must be illuminated via a backlight to produce an image. OLEDs hold a number of advantages due to the lack of a backlight: the potential for flexibility on a plastic substrate; deeper color range, particularly in non-lit blacks; and lower power consumption. 

OLEDs will Grow in Popularity

Even before FOLEDs become mainstream, OLED displays are already gaining popularity for their numerous benefits. A number of commercial products are beginning to incorporate OLED tech, particularly televisions. A number of TV makers are producing large, high resolution displays, some of which even make use of the potential for flexibility by offering a curved screen. The main concerns around this first generation of OLED products stem from production cost, and durability; both are valid concerns, but areas where OLEDs are likely to improve.

Flexible OLEDs on the Market

In addition to a number of curved TV models, particularly from Korean manufacturers LG andSamsung, a number of smartphone makers have started with FOLEDs. All of the current phone designs to use FOLEDs are in the pilot stage, with Samsung appearing to currently be the most aggressive at showing off its tech. Samsung’s FOLED, called a YOUM display, has been demonstrated in a functional model that houses the rigid components of the display on one end of the device, and the flexible display on the other. The display has been shown with moving images while being bent and warped in the hands of the demonstrator. Sony has apparently shown a flexible display that is rollable, but very few details of this device have been released.

Current Applications are Limited

Flexible OLEDs are hampered by a number of issues that limit their current usefulness. While the displays can be made flexible, the components that drive the display are not, so the notion of an entirely flexible device is not yet a reality. Also, the current flexible displays that have been extensively shown have a rather wide bending radius -- they aren’t that flexible. The idea of a display being folded or rolled into a compact space has not been shown. So, given the current state of FOLEDs, it’s not clear that a semi-bendable smartphone really holds that much benefit over the current slab model. Even the current curved FOLED TVs on the market offer a design that has at best a subjective benefit. The current generation of FOLEDs offer only a subtle flexibility, and its unclear how useful this is until it improves.

Flexible OLEDs: A First Step

Rather than see the current state of FOLEDs as offering groundbreaking opportunity, it’s more accurate to say that FOLEDs provide a view of a first step towards the future of devices. Certainly in the shorter term, FOLEDs could have major applications in wearable technology, for example in a bracelet-type smartwatch device. Over the longer term, with advances in creating flexible or miniature components, the notion of a truly foldable device, like a fold out, table-sized digital map that can fit in a pocket may someday become a reality. It’s still far off, but FOLED technology seems to be a significant first step in that direction. As such, it is certainly an area of tech innovation worth paying attention to.

( Updated: 2014-05-18 )
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