Jet-setting into the Future with OLEDs

Enormous TVs that can be rolled up for storage. Clothing that is seamlessly crafted with lights and wireless controls. Airplanes that have high-definition panels instead of windows. What do these futuristic innovations have in common? They all rely on OLEDs — organic light-emitting diodes.

OLED-Info, a website devoted to OLED news and information, describes OLED as “a flat, light-emitting technology, made by placing a series of organic thin films between two conductors.” OLEDs emit light when an electrical current passes through them, which means they do not need backlights, unlike LCDs (liquid crystal displays). That enables OLED displays to be thinner and more energy-efficient than LCDs. OLED displays can also be flexible if they are “printed” onto pliable materials, such as plastic.

A number of gadgets, including Samsung’s Galaxy S series of smartphones and tablets, Oculus Rift’s Development Kit 2 virtual reality headset and some of Sony’s digital cameras currently incorporate OLED displays. "I think that in the near future the most exciting developments in OLEDs will be TVs, wearables, flexible displays, transparent displays and lighting solutions," says OLED-Info Editor in Chief Ron Mertens.

A roll-up TV may soon become reality. South Korea’s LG Display, which already makes flexible OLED smartphones and TVs, has said it aims to produce rollable TVs as early as 2017. Though Mertens predicts the first “really rollable” TV won’t appear until 2019, he is bullish on OLED TVs in general because he says they offer better image quality and thinner designs than other types of TVs.

Wearables are another area in which OLEDs are likely to proliferate. Several wrist-worn wearables, from Garmin’s Vivosmart activity tracker to Intel’s MICA (My Intelligent Communication Accessory) smart bracelet presently use OLED displays. Mertens says he expects more wearables manufacturers will adopt OLEDs due to the technology’s lightweight, thin profile, good image quality, flexibility and durability.

What about OLED-equipped clothes? While a few designers have used OLEDs to create eye-catching clothing, including luminescent dresses that change patterns and illuminated safety outerwear for firefighters and traffic officers, the designs have only been prototypes or limited editions. Mertens says more designers will turn their attention to OLED clothes when — and if — OLEDs can be printed directly onto textiles instead of onto film that is then bonded to fabric.

Even more intriguing is the idea of using OLEDs as a smart replacement for windows in planes and trains. The Centre for Process Innovation, a UK-based technology innovation center, recently publicized a concept for a “windowless plane” that would feature floor-to-ceiling OLED panels. The CPI says airlines would benefit from lower fuel costs (due to reduced vehicle weight and aerodynamic drag) and passengers could use the panels to see outside (via cameras mounted on the plane’s exterior) or to go online, much like a computer screen. Mertens thinks the CPI’s proposed timeframe of 2025 is feasible, but the price of such a project might be prohibitive.

OLEDs have always been costly to produce. However, production efficiencies and technology advances are reducing expenses, and the industry expects small OLED displays and small LCDs to cost the same by year-end. Large-sized OLEDs are still far more expensive than LCDs, but their price is declining, as well. A 55-inch LG OLED TV cost $15,000 in 2013, but is about $3,000 now.

Lower costs will make it even easier for OLED manufacturers to revolutionize how we use displays. Mertens says that could include foldable smartphones, curved displays for cars and never-before-seen lighting designs. "Flexible OLEDs may revolutionize new products that we cannot really imagine today."