In the race to develop foldable, flexible smartphones, LG picks Ignis' technology

By resolving some of the major problems inherent in OLED panels, Ignis could transform the industry.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

The LG G Flex released in 2013 as the first smartphone from LG to feature a flexible display. (Image: Josh Miller/CNET)

In a world marked by disruptive technology, this much is clear: smartphone sales have flatlined. The first quarter of 2016 saw a negligible increase in global smartphone sales over the comparable quarter in the previous year. Even in China, a reliable source of roaring growth, these devices have reached market saturation.

For global smartphone manufacturers, this will soon become an existential crisis that could lead to falling stock prices and shrinking market caps as they fail to provide the next big source of fuel for their growth engines. After all, according to research outfit IDC, Apple witnessed its first year-over-year decline in the first quarter. Samsung, too, experienced the same. Almost every smartphone manufacturer on Earth is searching for a silver bullet that could bring back the glory days of easy money when consumers couldn't get enough smartphones.

The silver bullet that many -- like Samsung -- are betting big on is a different form factor to excite consumers. More specifically, a phone with a large, flexible screen that allows a user to fold it and slip it into his or her pocket. Samsung is apparently gearing up to introduce a few of these devices next year in an effort to re-ignite its fortunes in the category.

One evidently will fold up like a "cosmetic case", while another will be designed as a 5-inch screen that will magically transform to an 8-inch one and function like a tablet. The company seems dead-serious about its intentions and has announced mass production plans for next year. Others, like LG, are also pursuing the same dream, and if these companies are successful, they could very well ignite the imagination of the masses and cause the next explosion in phone sales.

Now, the only screens that will be able to both bend and perform well are those with organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) housed in smartphones, computers, televisions, car displays, and other such devices. These OLEDs are a thin film of organic material brushed on top of the display. When an electrical current is applied to the film, it gives off light, just like a regular LED -- except it's only a few nanometers thick. This means that devices can suddenly transform into super-thin ones (OLED TV screens, for example, can be one-sixteenth of an inch thick), display truer colors while sucking as little as 30 to 50 percent less power, are 1,000 times more responsive than LCDs, and can be flexible and fold. In other words, they embody both a leap in technology and a form of profound proportions.

Consequently, all major electronics manufacturers are gravitating away from LCDs and toward OLEDs. The market for this next-generation technology is a gargantuan one -- soon to be some $40 billion in four years. It doesn't hurt that OLEDs have the ability to emit their own light and do away with the backlights that Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) rely on.

There's just one catch. Despite all this dazzling achievement and commercial promise, OLEDs are plagued by a thorny problem: the occurrence of blur or spots on its panels, thanks to manufacturing irregularities or aging in individual transistors circuits on which OLEDs lie. These irregularities mean that circuits can often transmit a variance in power to individual OLED pixels, which leads to visual defects.

Now, Ignis' solution -- that fuses hardware and software -- constantly works on the pixel in real time to make sure it is rendering the image as it should be regardless of variances in circuits. Ignis has filed over 300 patents and is apparently the only company that has figured out how to address the problem (hence LG's eagerness to ink a contract with it for their future screens and displays).

Ignis has been steadily chipping away at this problem for the past 16 years in the new mecca for technology, a small town called Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Ignis was originally spun off from the University of Waterloo, a de-facto temple for engineering in Canada, and founded by Arokia Nathan, a former University of Waterloo professor, who subsequently moved to Cambridge University in the UK. His work, as well as the company, was then taken over by his PhD student, Reza Chaji, who is now president and CTO at Ignis.

Ignis' contract with LG is a non-exclusive one, which means that if the company's technology turns out to be the real deal, it may be the most sought-after outfit in the universe of smartphones.

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