Flexible flat-panel displays coming soon

The quickening pace of innovation in flat-panel display technology will make possible the development of flexible displays sooner...

The quickening pace of innovation 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-colour flexible displays become commercially available, according to researchers at Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI).

At the government-backed R&D organisation's Electronics Research and Services Organisation (ERSO) researchers are 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 and organic thin-film transistor (OTFT) 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.

ITRI has already produced working prototypes of flexible displays.

"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.

Today its 4,700 researchers serve as an important R&D center for Taiwan's high-tech industry, nurturing start-up companies and leading local development of new technologies

With a staff turnover at around 10% per yearITRI also serves as a training ground for researchers who may go on to start their own companies or take up positions within established high-tech companies.

At ERSO's Flat Panel Display Technology Division 181 researchers are working on display technologies, around 60 on flexible displays, and that number will increase to 90 next year.

ITRI is hoping that its R&D efforts will pay off. Based on current projections ITRI expects to produce prototype full-colour 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.

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. Less than a millimeter thick, NHK's prototypes were colour and included pixels so that a simple scrolling text could be displayed on them.

In February, the US Army awarded a $43.7m (£23.9) 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.

Also in January, Philips announced that Polymer Vision, an initiative within the Philips Technology Incubator, had produced an organics-based 5in QVGA (320 pixels by 240 pixels) active matrix display with a resolution of 85 dpi and a bending radius of 2cm. Based on this technology, it is developing a flexible display that can be used with a mobile phone.

In July France Télécom demonstrated a flexible color display based on LEDs that can be integrated into clothing. Trials of the screen are currently under way in France.

Sumner Lemon writes for IDG News Service

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