This is a guest post by Sri Peruvemba, Chair of Marketing, Society for Information Display
How will computing change in the coming years? The better question to ask is what won’t change. Thanks to a new platform, microdisplays and computing in general will transform how we communicate, how we live, even the way we express ourselves to each another. Ultimately, laptops, tablets, phones or smartwatches will go the way of the CRT. As will keyboards and mice. They’ll be replaced by innovative new wearables, inconspicuous devices that will interpret eye-blinks, voice commands, and hand gestures. A miniscule camera will follow your fingertips and body movements, allowing you to transpose images and text with ease, not unlike those depicted in Ready Player One.
The basic technology is here—used by Google, Microsoft, Oculus, MagicLeap, and other pioneers. And so is the demand. Refinements that improve performance and drive down costs are needed. But the world’s biggest players are on board. Form will follow function. Economies of scale will nosedive production costs. Within this realm, three display technologies have moved to the forefront. One appears to be slipstreaming those behind it into the 22nd century—microOLEDs.
AR/VR: Evolutionary and Revolutionary
The AR/VR hype is over, in the past year, several serious players have been developing useful apps that make these devices valuable. We are now at the tip of the iceberg in terms of market potential It shouldn’t come as a surprise that AR and VR headsets will grow leaps and bounds in the next decade. We’ve already seen major breakthroughs in size, weight, and performance. Microdisplays, optical engines, and haptic feedback components will be key drivers in this arena. Innovative new headsets revealed at CES and other venues have sparked interest in ‘super-smart’ eyewear. These wearable computers will offer eye-opening functionalities, allowing the wearer to interact with smartphones, health-tracking options, and many other features. The new devices will be supported by an ever-growing ecosystem of components.
Google Spearheading Tomorrow’s Tech
Google is making a headlong rush to bring the 22nd century to phones and other portable devices. Their next generation of ‘assistants’ will bring the power of AI to your portable device. Imagine an assistant that can understand and process your verbal request in real-time—delivering answers up to ten times faster. The voice-enabled assistant is fully customized to the way you live, work, and even drive your car. Let’s say you get a call on your phone while driving, the ‘assistant’ in your glasses or elsewhere can tell you who’s calling, and ask if you wish to answer the call—you’ll never have to look at the screen.
Look what’s happening to facial recognition. Devices now recognize you, greet you and provide information unique to you. It can even recognize hand movements—to turn music on, off or lower the volume.
GPS enabled maps are now so smart that instead of depicting your walk via a dot on a screen, you’ll see a street-level photo with arrows showing you where to go. The only thing better would be Star Trek’s Data, walking with you, saying, “Turn here, friend.” You’ll also have the ability to convert sound into readable text (if you’re in an office meeting and don’t want to distract those around you).
Yes, the human-machine interface is beginning to blur. AI will not only work with you, almost like another human being, but it will be able to anticipate your needs, making life easier and simpler.
Big Players Diving in with Wave of New Wearables
What’s happening with microdisplays is nothing short of jaw dropping. Global tech giants are diving in, investing big to improve both technology and performances. New technologies and manufacturers continue to enter the field. VR headset launches, enabling technologies, and developments in optimized components are sure to catapult virtual reality to the forefront of personal computing. In fact, VR headsets are already shipping in volumes of over 10,000,000 units this year.
There’s little doubt that microdisplay tech will slingshot the demand for an ever-increasing variety of near-eye displays and other ‘wearables.’ I predict that the global market for microdisplays will reach 50M units by 2024. This includes AR/VR systems, smart glasses, Helmet Mounted Displays (HMDs), and Head-Up Displays (HUDs)—virtually every app where high-resolution is needed. In the case of AR systems, smart glasses and HUDs, we’re already witnessing huge improvements in refresh rates to prevent motion sickness in headsets.
Improvements Precede Widespread Acceptance
Wearable sensors and innovative user interfaces are making big tech gains, as are near-eye displays, optics, and energy storage devices. All continue to evolve in performance and acceptance. Needless to say, some improvements will have to occur before consumers accept this tech on a broad scale. Components need to shrink, and power efficiencies must rise to allow for longer playtimes before recharging. In addition, components will need to be ‘ruggedized’ to work in diverse environments.
Widespread market acceptance of this tech will be tightly tethered to costs, which must come down. But thanks to industry MVPs like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook, their big investments will drive down costs. Other players doing some of the heavy lifting include eMagin, Kopin, Sony, Olightek, and Himax. There’s also a huge microOLED interest in China. These heavy hitters, as well as some hot newcomers, will help find the cost-performance sweetspot to fulfill the vision of AR/VR as the next generation computing platforms for business and entertainment. They’ll create the new functionalities and form factors to support tomorrow’s bold new near-eye and on-eye computers.
“TopGun” Military Apps
High-performance microOLEDs for AR HMDs have become a ‘must-have’ for today’s military pilots. In fact, some of the best HMDs today are for military applications. A good example is the $400,000 Mixed Reality (MR) helmet from Collins Aerospace. Designed for pilots flying the new F-35 aircraft from Lockheed Martin, this MR helmet is nothing short of visionary.
Key players in this fast-growing industry—like Rockwell Collins, Elbit, and Lockheed Martin—are continually leapfrogging each other to boost performance. Military applications place a high premium on brightness and contrast for see-through AR HUDs. In many situations, AR information must compete with the high ambient light of the outside world, especially in daylight.
The military needs high bright displays of over 5000 cd/m2. Pilots need this high level of brightness because see-through AR HMDs typically require a very bright display to overcome the high ambient environment. Images and graphics in aviation HMDs must be bright enough so pilots can see them against a white cloud layer and in direct sunlight.
(2Kx2K MicroOLED .. Photo Courtesy, eMagin Corp)
Here’s a brief rundown of the top three microdisplay technologies that will drive AR/VR and other human-machine device breakthroughs in the coming decade.
The display tech everyone is talking about is microOLEDs. The OLED microdisplay market is expected to reach a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of over 19% during 2019-2024. This tech is poised to have an enormous impact on VR, Military, Industrial, Medical and Smartglass applications. Ultra-thin, with high brightness and contrast, microOLEDs consist of a solid Si-wafer substrate. Their high-resolutions dovetail nicely with head-mounted AR/VR devices, where lightweight and fast response speeds are much preferred.
The worldwide market for MicroOLEDs compared to the entire display industry is quite modest. But BoE and SeeYa are poised to deliver ten times today’s volume of microOLED displays. Over $500M of fab investment has occurred in the past 18 months on microOLEDs. The jump in capacity will be coming online this quarter. It marks quite a commitment to a technology that is currently experiencing chrysalis. A steady stream of improvements suggests that microOLEDs are likely to dominate the microdisplay space in the next three to five years. That said, MicroLED could give MicroOLED a run for the money, in AR.
MicroOLEDs are light emitters (vs LCoS displays are light valves). They use light emitting phosphor materials between two layers of electrodes and do not use polarizers or backlight. A current applied between the two electrodes causes monochrome light to be emitted which passes thru color filters (Red-Green-Blue) to generate the desired colors. MicroOLEDs deliver excellent image quality and a full-color spectrum with response times in the microseconds. Their high resolution, color depth, lower power consumption and high luminance make them well suited for VR devices. Compact, fast and bright, these displays easily lend themselves to both industrial and consumer-based applications—everything from electronic viewfinders for high-end cameras to high impact 3D head-mounted devices for VR. This technology is not without disadvantages, its not as bright, its expensive and has lifetime as differential aging issues.
The MicroOLED displays of tomorrow will have a resolution of 4k x 4K with over 5000 cd/m2 brightness at a mass production price that is about 15% of what it is today.
Cost sensitive applications generally prefer Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) displays. First off, they’ve been around for decades and they’re a fraction of the cost of microOLEDs. They also deliver ultra-high brightness and contrast, as well as energy and heating efficiency.
A LCoS display is constructed using liquid crystal material sandwiched between two plates, when a voltage is applied across the plates the liquid crystal molecules act as a shutter or light valve, together with a TFT (Thin Film Transistor) they form pixels that turn On and Off. Colors are generated using a color filter atop this structure.
Materials and configurations to achieve this effect vary by manufacturer. Some use nematic liquid crystals or ferroelectric crystals. An LCoS device typically has a tiny gap between pixels. The pixel pitch (horizontal distance between pixels of the same color) can be as little as 8 microns, which is how it reduces the screen door effect.
LCoS displays, while inexpensive, do not have the contrast or speed required for several of the applications, particularly AR. In VR applications this technology is blamed for causing nausea due to motion blur. The displays tend to be heavier; they are not ideal for night vision goggles due to the backlight being ON all the time and the resultant glow.
At present, the market is betting on microLED technology, which is still in its infancy. Here, the displays comprise several microscopic LEDs, which self-illuminate each display pixel. But unlike OLEDs, microLEDs employ inorganic material. And since microLEDs need no separate backlighting, you get darker blacks and brighter whites, without the light bleed that often plague traditional displays. Like OLEDs, microLEDs use each pixel as a light source, providing incredible contrast and color depth.
MicroLEDs are far brighter than OLEDs, with a contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1. Being an emissive display, microLEDs needn’t rely on organic compounds to generate light. Which is why they deliver perfect blacks, excellent color, and near-perfect off-angle viewing. They also tend to be very slim, immune to burn-in, and hold a lot of promise for AR applications. Historically, given their low resolution, LEDs were used in applications where the viewer was several feet to hundreds of feet away from the display– think billboards and signs on buildings. However, MicroLEDs with high resolution now enable displays that can be used in TV as well as indoor applications where the viewer is much closer to the display.
MiniLEDs for TV and Signage applications are already being deployed; MicroLEDs will follow in these applications. However, MicroLEDs for Microdisplays is a long ways off. Will it arrive in time to take advantage of the emerging markets in AR and disrupt the supply chain?
In the next decade, microdisplays will evolve and change the way we perceive AR/VR, HUDs, HMDs, and other Wearables. They will free us from keyboards, mice and carrying ‘cumbersome bricks of technology.’ The new breed of computing devices is already on drawing boards. We will reflect back on this day and recall the time when it all began. Virtually everything we require will be instantly available—by eye movements, voice, or the wave a hand. This bold new tech will catapult us into a future predicted by movies like Minority Report. As Bill Gates is fond of saying: “We always underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten years.”
Editor’s Note: Sri Peruvemba is a Board Member and Chair of Marketing of The Society for Information Display (SID). Peruvemba is an industry veteran with successful tenure at notable display manufacturers such as Standish Industries, Planar, Sharp, E Ink and CLEARink. With over 30 years of experience in the technology industry, Peruvemba has been an influential advocate in the advancement of electronic hardware technologies. He is an acknowledged expert on sensors, electronic displays, haptics, touch screens, and related technologies; and consults, writes, and presents on those subjects globally. Based in Silicon Valley, Peruvemba advises high tech firms in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. SID provides a unique platform for industry collaboration, communication, and training in all related technologies while showcasing the industry's best new products. Display Week 2020 will be held June 7-12, 2020, in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.displayweek.org.