How TVs Will Get Much, Much Flatter

Illustration: Marc Rosenthal
Illustration: Marc Rosenthal
Plasma is dead. Front and rear projection? Fuggeddaboutit. LCD has a few good years left, and then it's sayonara, baby. TV technology's future lies in tiny phosphorescent molecules.

Organic light-emitting diodes--OLEDs--employ a thin layer of organic material that emits light when electricity passes through it. OLED displays need no backlight, so they're ultrathin and flexible. They are also brighter, cheaper to manufacture, and more environmentally friendly than plasma displays or LCDs. Over the next few years, OLED will be coming to a boob tube near you, and later maybe to the walls of your house, or even the windshield of your car.

Thin and Rich

When Sony showed off its 27-inch active-matrix OLED flat panel at last January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, you could hear jaws dropping. A contrast ratio of a million to one, with pure blacks, blinding whites, and brilliant colors; no problems with viewing angles or ambient light; faster response times than LCDs; and low energy consumption--all on a pane of glass thinner than a Bic pen.

"OLEDs...reproduce the exact colors a movie maker intended," says Barry Young, OLED expert for DisplaySearch. "LCDs [and plasmas] can't produce 100 percent of the grayscales in the original image...; OLEDs can."

Right now, only one model is available: Sony's XEL-1, which measures 11 inches diagonally, costs $2500, and has a short useful-life span.

But the XEL-1 is mostly a proof-of-concept item, says Young. OLEDs using newer materials are proving more robust, and eventually they'll long outlast plasma and LCD sets, he adds.

This year, the flat-panel industry woke up and smelled the diodes. Samsung SDI--the world's largest maker of OLEDs for cell phones and portable media players--is pumping half a billion dollars into new manufacturing plants. Epson, LG, Toshiba, and other major manufacturers of OLEDs are following suit.

Janice Mahone, vice president of technology commercialization for Universal Display, says that consumers should start to see OLED panels in the 20-to-30-inch range in 2009. But it's likely to be two years or more before OLEDs can compete with LCDs on price.

A Flat Future

OLED isn't the only promising new TV technology. Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS)--LED-powered displays that employ millions of microscopic shutters to control light passing through them--use less power than OLEDs, but they trail OLEDs in development.

Mahone admits that LCDs have lots of life left, and manufacturers--who are loath to cannibalize their LCD sales--will likely try to keep OLED prices high for several years. In the long run, though, OLED sets will become cheaper to produce, thanks to having less electronics.

"You could have a paper-thin, wall-size OLED that displays video, shows photographs, or provides ambient light with a flick of a switch," says Mahone. Transparent OLED technology could provide the same instant control for the windows in your room or for a heads-up display on the windshield of your car.

If you're planning on buying a big-screen TV set this year, it won't be an OLED. But your next TV after that one very well could be--if it isn't built into the walls of your next house.

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