The next frontier in display technology is promising ultra-light, ultra-thin, flexible screens with vivid color display. It’s called Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED), and it’s due to have a big impact on the future of display interfaces. But before you rush out to buy the first OLED smartphone, let’s have look at what OLED is, and what it means for the devices that use it – and thos who use them.
How OLED Works
There are a host of detailed guides on the Internet about how OLEDs work, but what it all boils down to is that scientists are taking some of the gains made by LCD and LED technologies now used in the average display, and tweaking them to produce a model that is more versatile, uses less energy, and promises a more diverse next generation of devices.
In some ways, OLED is a little like an LCD: electricity creates light that is filtered through molecules. What’s different about OLED is that instead of being lit by light waves, light is created by electrons running through a "solid state" material. Solid state is a term that means conductive materials are acted on by an electrical charge. But in OLED, it all comes down to the most basic unit of an atom: the electron.
A layer of material called a cathode basically "injects" electrons into the organic layers, where they "fill holes" and react to materials in ways that give off light as a byproduct. Then, on the other side, a layer called an anode receives the electrons again.
So one way to think about this, for those who’ve never really studied solid state, LCDs or LEDs, is that the power isn’t running horizontally across a display interface: it’s running through it from top to bottom, on a very short trip that ends up creating bursts of light in the pixels that make up the display.
What’s really making tech geeks dream of tomorrow’s rollable, bendable, 3-D devices is OLED technology’s potential flexiblity. Unlike earlier technologies, with OLED it’s possible to twist these material elements in three dimensions. As a result, engineers are coming up with ways to put a display device into a thin, flexible film, even something that can be worn on the skin. Repair technicians are thinking about how a flexible display can make mobile phone and tablet repair a lot easier. And we’re getting ready, in general, for a screen that’s not as delicate, fragile or sensitive as the old, conventional models.
When you step back and think about it, we’ve come an amazingly long way from the color TVs and early computer monitors of the 1980s, with each decade giving us new, brighter, more vibrant displays. But OLED technology has the potential to explode all of our old ideas about a screen being "central" the way that a TV or cinema screen always was. With OLED, screens are more likely to be come portable, wearable and even disposable.
Along with its great potential for device design innovation, OLEDs also consume less energy than earlier designs, making them desirable for all kinds of new hardware projects. For example, take the Internet of Things, where manufacturers are looking at new ways of getting appliances and all sorts of other consumer items onto the Internet. That’s probably going to mean that your refrigerator, toaster or hairdryer needs a screen, or some way for the end user to interact with the appliance. Enter OLED: a way to install a small screen without giving up energy efficiency. (Learn more about IoT in What the $#@! Is the Internet of Things?!)
OLEDs in Today’s Industry
In 2015, we are at a crossroads in OLED adoption. The technology is there, and it’s getting built into all sorts of smaller devices already. Where OLED TVs are still brand new (and very expensive, OLEDs are being adopted for mobile devices, but not universally.
For example, let’s look at the smartphone market. In recent months, new smartphone models have come on the market featuring an OLED display, models like the Droid Turbo, the Google Nexus 6, and the Samsung Galaxy A3 and A5. Even Apple, which first criticized OLED in favor of its Retina dispaly, may be getting on board.
There’s also OLED technology already built into some of the newest "health wearables" in the consumer device industry. Device makers seem to be moving toward a "bracelet" model where a horizontal screen allows easy reference, and internal accelerometers, gyroscopes and other tools track the user’s movement or monitor vital signs.
Another big use of OLED panels is in state-of-the-art table or standing lamps. Because OLED panels can be bent and contoured, they allow whole new design possibilities.
Yes, OLED is also bringing futuristic style to the music devices that have replaced the old MP3 player. Now that music devices need to handle a broader range of formats, they’re also being built with more functionality, such as multi-touch and Web connectivity all wrapped up in an ultra lightweight OLED display.
The Future of OLED
Like other technologies, OLED will probably come down in price for the larger screens as manufacturers work on establishing economy of scale and pursue design improvements. But some experts think that other alternatives might beat out the organic LED approach, most notably, "quantum dot" technology, which takes a different route toward enervating the power of the traditional LED. Regardless, engineers at the vanguard of the display field are at work on the next wave of screens that will be more powerful and flexible – and new devices that promise more connectivity than we ever thought possible.