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Why OLED will decimate LCD screens and usher in a display revolution

Hang on to your seats and get ready for that smartphone in your pocket to turn into a relic of the past — the OLED revolution is on our doorstep.

Imagine a device about the size of a pen that can replace your smartphone, tablet, and even your wearable devices. Hidden inside this slender canister is a large, rollable touch screen with unparalleled resolution and contrast that will let you Skype, watch movies, or map out directions, and it’s all powered by a battery that lasts for days, not hours. That might seem far-fetched, but this isn’t some futuristic prop from the set of the next Star Trek film. It’s called the Universal Communications Device, and it’s coming to a store near you in as little as five years.

The device described above is the unofficial mascot of one of today’s top companies that’s hard at work to transform our future with the displays of tomorrow, Universal Display Corporation. Known affectionately (and confusingly) as the UCD from UDC, it’s one of a plethora of new devices that will employ advanced applications of OLED display technology to, quite literally, change how we see the world.

OLED takes the spotlight

Short for Organic Light Emitting Diode, OLED screens are often touted for their incredible picture quality, which is considered by videophiles to be superior to traditional Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs). But it’s the malleability of OLED screens that has captured the public’s attention, and will create a paradigm shift in how we use displays in the near future. That’s because OLED displays can be created not only from glass substrates (as is common right now) but also on bendable plastic materials that allow for a host of other applications.

To find out more about how and why OLED will become the dominant display technology in the coming decade, we recently spoke to Janice Mahon, who serves as VP of Technology Commercialization for Universal Display Corp.

“One of the things that sets OLED technology apart from LCD … is its intrinsic ability to be flattened and rolled”

“One of the things that sets OLED technology apart from LCD and other technologies is its intrinsic ability to be flattened and rolled,” Mahon tells us. “We’ve been focused on rollable OLEDs for over 15 years.”

If you’ve shopped for a TV or even a new Android smartphone recently, you may have seen OLED displays at work. Samsung has been using the tech to do some cool things in its smartphones lately, including the new Galaxy S6 Edge, which bends the screen around both edges. LG has taken the lead on the tech in larger displays, creating beautifully thin TVs that are in the marketplace now, as well as pulling out ultra-thin and rollable concept displays that foreshadow what’s to come.

“This technology, I believe, is really going to change how we use displays dramatically,” Mahon tells us. “We’ll see foldable displays, we’ll see smartphones that go back to clamshells opening up to a full sized screen … wearables like wrist based displays, and devices integrated into clothing, shirt cuffs, (and) backpacks. It has the potential to cross a variety of applications.”

In short, OLED is going to be everywhere, and in everything, helping to make our near-future look … well, more futuristic.

Big screens at the beach

The increasing miniaturization of technology helps to decrease the size and weight of the electronics involved in making display screens, allowing them to be placed virtually anywhere, but it also helps to create ultra-thin screens that can roll out to monster sizes — so we can have our cake and watch it too. As Mahon says, while all electronics are perpetually getting smaller, the one place we don’t want to go small is screen size.

55-inch OLED display
LG Display

“Companies like LG are talking about … the concept of very large area flexible based wallpaper or rollable screens,” Mahon says. Indeed, not long ago LG showed off a 55-inch OLED display that is so thin it can stick to a wall using nothing more than a magnet, as well as an 18-inch screen that can be rolled, just like the one inside the pen. And that’s just a taste of what’s around the bend.

The massive screens UDC has planned could potentially be spread throughout the home of the future, covering the walls in brilliant displays for a whole new take on the phrase “big screen.” In addition, full sized screens could potentially be rolled into a thin tube and be taken along with us, allowing for a high resolution display that we can bring anywhere, be it the office or the family cabin. And, as Mahon says, this isn’t just a pipe dream. When companies like LG and even Philips continue to talk about this kind of technological evolution, “it means that it’s going to come.”

From here to there

Of course, there are challenges to be met before everyone’s toting around high-resolution screens everywhere they go: Further miniaturization of everything from electronic processing circuitry to batteries, and simple cost reduction in OLED screen production, for instance.

While all electronics are perpetually getting smaller, the one place we don’t want to go smaller is in screen size.

“One of the challenges is simply improving manufacturing techniques to reduce defects,” Mahon tells us. That’s because of the way OLEDs are commonly made right now, which involves a massive swath of substrate from which multiple displays are cut. The process makes it easy to overlook a defect or two, such as a single “point defect,” when it comes to smaller screens for mobile devices, but harder when you’re talking about a larger surface area like a big screen TV.

“Envision a large glass substrate,” Mahon says. “If you are building cellphone displays on that substrate, if you have 100 or 200 that it gets cut into, if there’s one point defect you can recover 199 cellphone displays, and only throw away one. If, on that same piece of glass, you build two TVs and you have one point defect, you may be in the position of having to throw one of your two TVs away.”

That’s part of the reason OLED displays haven’t taken over the marketplace as quickly as some would like, and it’s part of why OLED TVs are so pricey right now. LG’s flagship 4K UHD OLED, for instance, runs around $7,000 — a good deal more than what its LCD counterparts cost. However, while companies like Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung have seemingly put OLED TVs “on the backburner” as Mahon describes it, she believes Samsung’s success in creating gorgeous (and popular) OLED smartphones like the S6 Edge is a precursor of things to come.

65EG9600

LG’s 65EG9600 4K OLED TV

Companies like Universal Display are working hard on reducing OLED defects, allowing production to move from small screens like smartphone displays to medium sized screens, up to massive display sizes. “We’re seeing that learning curve happen today in the glass world,” Mahon says. “I believe on flexibles, we’ll see that same learning curve happen with time.”

The magic pen in the flesh

Another big challenge in creating the malleable displays of the future is durability. After all, it’s not exactly easy on a display to roll it into a tight spiral over and over again. However, UDC and other companies are making real progress on that front, too. Which brings us back to the magic pen, aka the Universal Communications Device.

Another big challenge in creating the malleable displays of the future is durability.

“I believe we will see over the next couple of years some iterations on that concept,” Mahon says, with a screen “that can last 20,000 hours and be rolled in and out hundreds of thousands of times.” And when it comes to actually being able to get your hands on one, Mahon tells us “that’s probably within the five year window,” admitting that, since her company isn’t on the manufacturing side, that number is “purely a guess.”

“I kind of think about learning to crawl, then to walk, then to run that marathon,” Mahon says. “We had a shareholder meeting last week and we had a flexible display on a flexor, so it was rolling in, rolling out, etc., and it sat there for hours, but I don’t know that we’ve measured it in terms of how many zeroes of hours. But we look for that defect point, and then focus on that particular weakness.”

The death of LCD

Working for a company that focuses primarily on OLED technology Mahon is, by definition, biased in favor of OLED over other display technologies. Still, anyone who’s seen OLEDs and all that they can do can read the writing on the wall when it comes to the fate of other display technologies, such as LED-powered Liquid Crystal Displays. When asked point blank about whether OLED will inevitably replace LCDs, Mahon didn’t hesitate for a second.

“I absolutely believe that OLED is the ultimate replacement because OLEDs, side-by-side, do offer better image quality (than LCDs), hands down,” Mahon says. But that’s just one reason OLEDs are taking over.

There’s no doubt that newer LCD TVs we’ve seen recently, such as Samsung’s JS9500 SUHD TV, are giving OLEDs a run for their money when it comes to color reproduction and vibrancy. However, even taking OLED’s superior picture quality and unrivaled versatility out of the equation, Mahon believes OLED wins the race. And, as usual, the ultimate equalizer will eventually come down to dollars and cents.

lg eg9600 samsung js9500

Samsung’s JS9500 SUHD TV and LG’s EG9600 4K OLED

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

“When they finish coming up with the manufacturing development curve, and achieve the yield that LCDs have, (OLED displays) will be significantly less expensive,” Mahon says. “An LCD is a piece of glass, liquid crystals, a color filter, a backlight, and another piece of glass — so much more material intensive … building materials (for OLED) will be much lower than LCD.”

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In addition, Universal Display is working on new kinds of OLED displays, such as Phosphorescent OLED technology, or PHOLEDs, that reduce the voracious power requirements of OLED displays by a factor of four. Mahon says the displays UDC is developing right now will eventually need as little as 50 percent of the power current LCD displays require, allowing for better battery optimization that will improve the overall life of our devices. And that’s just in the near term. As technology and production techniques improve, OLED is poised to completely dominate the market.

From entire walls lined with brilliant images, to tiny screens folded into our clothing, OLED is helping to make incredible strides in how we use, design, and even think about display technology in the near future and beyond. So hang on to your seats and get ready for that smartphone in your pocket to turn into a relic of the past — the OLED revolution is on our doorstep.