Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years
Computer displays continue to develop in ways that are enabling whole new categories of devices. Flexible screens that can wrap around curved surfaces are in prototype, as are small, very thin interactive screens. Flexible screen technology allows displays to be literally printed onto plastic, along with the batteries that power them, enabling the sorts of live motion displays previously only hinted about in the world of Harry Potter. When the technology is developed fully it will enable integrated interactive display devices that combine input and output in a single interface, finally realizing the full potential of electronic paper, though widespread commercial use remains several years away.
Still in the early stages of development, flexible displays are essentially very thin display screens — as thin as a credit card — that can be printed onto flexible or stretchable material and then attached to other surfaces or produced in a variety of shapes. Because these displays are printed, rather than developed using the clean-room etching processes necessary to create computer chips, they can be produced very cheaply and easily. The materials they can be printed on can roll, bend, flex, and stretch, lending themselves to curved or contoured surfaces. Already in the marketplace is Americhip’s Video-in-Print, very thin flexible displays that can be easily inserted into popular magazines. CBS and Entertainment Weekly were first to demonstrate this new technology in the fall of 2009, when an issue of the magazine containing an embedded screen showing video promos for the CBS fall lineup was delivered to subscribers in New York and Los Angeles.
One of the underlying technologies that is enabling flexible displays is organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology, which is already in use in several other areas. Manufacturers like Sony, Phillips, and Samsung are using OLED technology in slim television screens and are also experimenting with prototypes of flexible and ultra-thin OLED screens. Household lights using OLEDs produce more light using less power than the most efficient non-OLED bulbs currently available. Displays made with OLED screens can be very thin and draw very little power because the pixels that make up the screens emit their own light, and a separate light source is not required. The screens are bright, like traditional displays, and can be layered onto plastic, although the process of printing the screens onto flexible plastic is still in the very early prototype stage. Current manufacturing processes also restrict the size of these flexible screens to no more than about six diagonal inches; larger screens, and even very large screens are technically possible, but currently cost-prohibitive.
Another supporting technology is flexible organic flash memory, which is used today in small devices such as cameras and MP3 players. Flash memory can hold information for a long time without continued electrical power, but finding a way to build flash memory into thin plastic has been problematic until very recently. Flexible organic flash memory will enable very thin touch-sensitive displays, but is still in very early development.
At the Arizona State University Flexible Display Center (FDC; http://flexdisplay.asu.edu/), researchers are working with HP, Boeing, the US Department of Defense, and others to bring this technology to the market in a variety of ways. The FDC was established in 2004 expressly for the purpose of developing the next generation of displays, emphasizing flexibility, low power costs, and sturdiness. In fact, the flexible displays currently in development and testing are extremely rugged, as demonstrated in test videos (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2pV-SArGSM). The wide range of industries interested in flexible display technology is a strong indication that the early prototypes we are seeing now herald further development and progress.
The possibilities suggested by flexible displays are very interesting, though still somewhat distant in time. When this technology matures, we will see a new class of devices incorporating these displays that are smaller and more portable than ever before. They could very easily be integrated with everyday objects, such as tools, appliances, printed materials, and even clothing — turning those objects into context-specific data displays. Portable devices might emerge that feature displays that can be folded, rolled, or otherwise stored in small spaces. The future of flexible screens is still unfolding, but examples that have already appeared in advertising and entertainment channels hint at the range of coming applications.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, or Creative Expression
Flexible displays, because of their adaptability and low cost, are certain to become part of everyday educational materials like periodicals, textbooks, and imaging tools. Since no separate light source is required, OLED screens can easily be placed into all manner of devices. Learning applications are still some years away and flexible displays are perhaps best thought of in the category of enabling technologies at this point; but once developed more fully, thin film technology will enable whole new categories of devices.
It is not difficult to picture a display set into the cover of a school notebook, for instance. This is something that could easily be done with flexible display technology as it exists today. Like the Video-in-Print display by Americhip, the display could accept recorded video material and have its battery recharged using a very slim USB connector. Displays with small, integrated chips would be single-purpose devices, such as video-enhanced business cards (prototypes are already available) or perhaps flash cards. Flexible displays could also be attached to larger devices with additional capabilities and more sophisticated technology, where they might function as touch screens that accept input as well as displaying output.
This technology is too new as yet to have many concrete examples of how it is being used in education, but one can envision many applications for flexible displays. A sampling of potential applications might include the following projected uses:
- Robotics. Prototype flexible displays have shown that the technology can be printed onto materials that are both bendable and stretchable, enabling them to be used on surfaces with complex contours, or surfaces that flex. Conformable displays could be molded on robotic parts to present information in the form of a face, for example.
- Science. Flexible displays will lead to increased information display opportunities. Lab equipment, for instance, might include displays with safety information or instructions for operating complex devices.
- Textbooks. Pharmaceutical companies are already investigating the possibilities for embedding flexible displays in medical references to illustrate methods for administering drugs. Once the cost drops sufficiently, it is conceivable that flexible displays could enhance textbooks with video or other animated content.
Flexible Displays in Practice
Because this is a very new technology, the relevant examples illustrate where this technology may take us. The following links provide examples of how flexible displays are currently being developed and used. For additional information on the current state of the technology, please see For Further Reading, below.
The Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University
The Milestones page lists significant accomplishments in the area of flexible displays at the Flexible Display Center, a research and development organization at Arizona State University. The site also includes links to publications and presentations by researchers at the FDC.
OrigamiReader by NewsFlex
The OrigamiReader is a flexible display designed to mimic the form factor and foldable nature of a standard newspaper. It draws very low power and refreshes screen content wirelessly.
Video-in-Print by Americhip
Americhip’s flexible display, called Video-in-Print, was placed in a special edition of the September 2009 issue of Entertainment Weekly that was sent to subscribers in New York and Los Angeles. The ad featured five video segments promoting upcoming programming on CBS.
The New York Times Envisions Version 2.0 of the Newspaper
(Zachary M. Seward, Neiman Journalism Lab, 11 May 2009.) This article and accompanying video describes research and development efforts at the New York Times Co., where researchers are envisioning the next generation of newspapers — including e-ink and flexible readers.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about flexible displays.
Bend Me, Shape Me, Anyway You Want Me
(from The Economist print edition, 22 January 2009.) This article describes the state of flexible screen technology and reports on developments at the Arizona State University Flexible Display Center.
FDC and UDC Make Breakthrough in Flexible Display Manufacturing Process
(ASU Flexible Display Center and Universal Display Corporation, 1 June 2009.) This press release describes an early prototype of an OLED display manufactured directly on a flexible polyethylene naphthalate (PEN) surface.
Flexible Display Channel on YouTube
This YouTube channel highlights innovations and projects related to flexible displays, including the work done by Arizona State University’s Flexible Display Center.
Programming Reality: From Transitive Materials to Organic User Interfaces
(Marcelo Coelho et al., MIT Media Lab-Fluid Interfaces Group, CHI 2009 Workshop, April 2009.) This paper gives a brief but thorough overview of the evolution of flexible displays and potential directions for future development.
Research Papers from the MIT Fluid Interfaces Group
(Various Authors, MIT Fluid Interfaces Group, accessed February 24, 2010.) This is a list of current publications that provides a sense of the types of projects in which fluid interfaces could be used.
(Prachi Patel, MIT Technology Review, 11 May 2009.) Researchers at the University of Tokyo have developed OLED displays that can be printed onto stretchy surfaces, opening up possibilities for flexible displays that can be wrapped around a variety of shapes.
Delicious: Flexible Displays
(Tagged by K-12 Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2010). Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hzk10” and “flexscreen” when you save them to Delicious.