Flexible future in store for flat-panel displays

The quickening pace of innovations in flat-panel display technology will make possible the development of flexible displays sooner rather than later, but users will still have to wait for nearly a decade before large, full-color flexible displays become commercially available, according to researchers at Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI).

At the government-backed research and development (R&D) organization's Electronics Research and Services Organization (ERSO) researchers are currently working on the development of displays based on flexible polymer substrates -- rather than the rigid glass substrates currently used to produce flat-panel displays -- and TFT-LCD (thin-film transistor liquid crystal display) and OTFT (Organic Thin-Film Transistor) technologies.

These development efforts promise to reshape the global display industry and will open the door to a range of new consumer devices with flexible displays, said Cheng-Chung Lee, deputy director of ERSO's Flat Panel Display Technology Division, in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

ITRI's R&D efforts have already produced working prototypes of flexible displays, one of which was shown to journalists visiting ERSO on Tuesday. The prototype, which is based on OTFT technology and developed last year, is basic and did not include a driver chip that would allow the image on the display to change. Instead, a simple pattern spelling out "ERSO ITRI" had been printed on a polymer substrate and these words became visible when the display was turned on, demonstrating that the fundamental concept works, Lee said.

"In the future, we can make electronic circuits on the flexible substrate," Lee said, outlining plans to incorporate driver chips, memory and wireless networking chips in future flexible displays.

Ongoing developments in flexible display technology at ITRI could have a far-reaching impact on the future of Taiwan's flat-panel industry, already among the largest and most advanced in the world and expanding rapidly.

Established in 1973, ITRI has played a pivotal role in the development of Taiwan's high-technology manufacturing industry. For example, the world's two largest contract chip makers, United Microelectronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. were both spun off from ITRI as independent companies.

Today, ITRI and its 4,700 researchers continue to serve as an important R&D center for Taiwan's high-tech industry, nurturing start-up companies and leading local development of new technologies across a range of areas, including nanotechnology, biotechnology, optical disks, flat-panel displays and semiconductors, among others. Many of these technologies are eventually transferred or licensed to Taiwanese companies.

With a staff turnover of around 10 percent per year, ITRI also serves as a fertile training ground for researchers who may go on to start their own companies or take up positions within established Taiwanese high-tech companies.

Inside ERSO's Flat Panel Display Technology Division, there are 181 researchers working on several display technologies, including LTPS (low-temperature polysilicon) TFT-LCDs, LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon), CNT-FEDs (carbon nanotube field-emission displays) and flexible displays, Lee said. Currently, around 60 researchers are working on flexible displays and that number will increase to 90 next year, reflecting the importance that ITRI has attached to this area, he said.

ITRI is hoping that these R&D efforts will pay off. Based on current projections, ITRI expects to produce prototype full-color flexible displays that can be rolled up inside a pen, for example, within eight to 10 years, Lee said. But smaller displays could be commercially available within two years for niche applications, such as for small signs or watches, he said.

Starting production of flexible displays for these niche applications will help refine manufacturing processes and lay the groundwork for the development of more advanced products, such as television sets, Lee said.

However, ITRI is neither the only developer of flexible-display technology nor necessarily the most advanced. In May, Japan's public broadcaster Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) showed off prototype flexible displays under development at its R&D lab in Tokyo. Less than a millimeter thick, NHK's prototypes were color and included pixels so a simple scrolling text could be displayed on them.

Other institutions are also developing similar displays. In February, the U.S. Army awarded a US$43.7 million contract to Arizona State University for the establishment of the Army Flexible Display Center, which will focus on the development of flexible, low-power computer displays that can be carried by soldiers in the field, according to the university.

Philips is also developing flexible-display technology. In January, Philips announced that Polymer Vision N.V., an initiative within the Philips Technology Incubator, had produced an organics-based 5-inch QVGA (320 pixels by 240 pixels) active matrix display with a resolution of 85 dpi (dots per inch) and a bending radius -- the minimum radius that a screen can bend without breaking -- of 2 centimeters using technology developed by Philips Research.

Based on this technology, Polymer Vision is developing a flexible display that can be used with a mobile phone, the company said. When not in use, the display can be rolled up and put away. When in use, the display can be rolled out and linked to a mobile phone using Bluetooth, giving the user access to a larger screen than would be possible using only a mobile phone.

Flexible displays could also find their way into everyday clothing. Earlier this month, France Telecom demonstrated a flexible color display based on LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that can be integrated into clothing, such as a T-shirt. The display is connected to a mobile phone using a Bluetooth link and drawings and animations can be shared between users over MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), the company said.

Trials of the screen are currently underway in France.

(Martyn Williams, in Tokyo, contributed to this report.)

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