Forget Retina and even 4K, ‘Nanopixel’ tech promises pixels 150 times smaller


Still images drawn with the technology: at around 70 micrometres across each image is smaller than the width of a human hair. Image/Caption: University of Oxford

One aspect of computer technology that has remained relatively constant is the resolutions of the monitors and display panels we use. Think about it: while the display and the graphics processing hardware that drive them continuously get faster and more powerful, the underlying resolutions of the devices themselves haven’t gotten notably higher in quite some time.

However, researchers at Oxford University and the University of Exeter in England recently came up with nanopixels, a new display technology that could increase screen resolution as much as 150 times higher than current tech.

And you thought 4K displays were crazy.

What are nanopixels?

Nanopixels are capable of much higher resolutions primarily because the pixels themselves are only 300×300 nanometers in size. That’s 150 times smaller than the pixels deployed in traditional displays. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about pixels that are small enough to draw images that are the width of a human hair.

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Furthermore, nanopixels deploy something called phase-change technology. Described simplistically, this means that the pixels themselves can switch between on and off modes with each refresh. Therefore, much like the E-Ink displays used in e-Readers, nanopixels require refreshes only when their states change. This means that they conserve a significant amount of power compared to conventional LCD screens.

‘We didn’t set out to invent a new kind of display.’

These new nanopixel displays will be extremely thin, and therefore very flexible, making them potentially well-suited for alternative display technologies. These include foldable screens, windshield displays, smart glasses, and synthetic retinas. Research suggests that with nanopixels, we could very well see paper-thin displays of all shapes and sizes with extremely high resolutions comprised of billions of pixels. Plus, they would consuming much less power in the process.

According to Professor Harish Bhaskaran of Oxford University’s Department of Materials, who led the research effort, he and his team have already demonstrated that the technique works on flexible Mylar sheets around 200 nanometers thick.

Now that’s one thin monitor.

When will we see Nanopixel Displays?

Professor Bhaskaran says that the folks at Oxford had no idea that they were discovering a new screen technology while they were hard at work.

“We were exploring the relationship between the electrical and optical properties of phase change materials,” Bhaskaran says. “We didn’t set out to invent a new kind of display.”

In other words, we won’t be seeing any nanopixel-based displays any time soon. Sorry, early adopters! That’s how science sometimes works, though. After all, Penicillin was also an accidental discovery.

Still, not only has Oxford demonstrated that nanopixel displays work, they’ve also shown that they can pave the way for creating paper-thin displays for all types of devices and uses. For all practical purposes though, this technology is still on the drawing board.

Keep in mind that there’s also the arduous prospect of assimilating such freakishly high-res displays into our existing operating systems and devices. In fact, pushing this technology to its maximum potential of 150 times the current average pixel depth is probably overkill in terms of what the human eye can actually discern. That would be the case on all but perhaps displays so large that they haven’t even been created yet.

Meanwhile, the Oxford and University of Exeter teams applied to patent the technology, and is holding discussions on displays based on nanopixels with companies and investors through Isis Innovation, Oxford University’s technology commercialization company. So perhaps we’ll see nanopixels in screens someday, but again, that probably won’t happen anytime soon.

Faster, thinner, lighter, higher resolutions; these are the possibilities posed by nanopixels. Though the advancement of technology generally inches forward, breakthroughs like these can spur huge leaps in progress.

It’s far from a new type of thruster to revolutionize space travel. But it’s still pretty damn awesome.

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