OLED products inching closer

commentary If we're lucky, the current fighting to be the top dog in OLED development could lead to better products that we'll actually see a lot sooner.A little over twelve months ago, I attended a press event held by Kodak, at which (amongst other things) they officially announced and launched their first camera to contain an OLED display, the EasyShare LS633.

commentary If we're lucky, the current fighting to be the top dog in OLED development could lead to better products that we'll actually see a lot sooner.

A little over twelve months ago, I attended a press event held by Kodak, at which (amongst other things) they officially announced and launched their first camera to contain an OLED display, the EasyShare LS633. Apart from being a neat camera for its time, it also marked the first point where a company had brought an OLED screen into an actual commercial product, albeit an OLED screen that only measured 2.2 inches across. It was (to the best of my knowledge) the first time a company had commercialised OLED technology -- I'm sure if I'm wrong about that, the moment I stop putting well-worn fingers to keyboard, some enterprising company CEO will be on the phone to bitch at me. Why not join in the fun?

OLED, in case you're wondering, isn't some kind of margarine additive (although it certainly sounds like one); OLED stands for Organic Light-Emitting Diode, an alternate technology (primarily) to LCD displays with a number of interesting characteristics. For a start, OLED displays require a significant amount less power than LCD displays. They're technically flexible. although we're yet to see a real product that takes advantage of this. They've got a theoretically faster response rate than existing LCD screens, meaning better refresh rates. They also have better obtuse viewing angles than LCDs; while this is something that's been improving with each generation of LCD displays, if you've ever peered over a colleagues' shoulder at a notebook or PDA and seen only off-colour gibberish, you'll know how important this is.

We've come some way, then, when a press release landed in my inbox yesterday, touting an Epson 40 inch OLED display. The newer screens use a custom inkjet printing process to create the OLED screens, but it's a process that's sadly a few years away from a real commercial product -- 2007 is when Epson reckons it'll bring something real to market. Still, 40 inches is a lot of screen real estate to play with. At that size, it's a real challenger to the Plasma and LCD display/TV market. It makes OLED notebooks a real possibility.

I should note here that Epson's announcement was no doubt a carefully timed spoiler for competitor Samsung's announcement of a 17" OLED display, a size much more suited to the notebook market. Samsung, you see, plans to launch an actual product to hit market sometime next year. Epson freely admits that its 40"-capable process isn't likely to be on your desk for a good three years, but issued the release anyway. Aside from scoring a few cheap media points -- hey, it got my attention, at least -- hopefully this kind of one-upmanship will lead to better OLED products that speed to market all that much quicker. And it's in the notebook arena that I reckon we'll see the biggest gain from OLED products.

The power needs of a notebook are arguably the single biggest pain for any notebook user, and the screen is the main PacMan-like gobbler of juice. Bring OLED into the equation and you're talking a lot more time to crunch numbers, surf the web or blast the alien baddies, depending on your work or play lifestyle, of course.

There are issues with OLEDs, most notably with keeping them running reliably year in, year out. The earliest OLEDs had very short shelf lives, and while they began with super-rich blacks, within a very short time, black was all you could see, as the screen's chemical composition broke down and stopped the screen working at all. So instead of a few dead pixels or a funny contrast colour, you might just feel as though you're going blind after a while, as your screen dims into nothingness. Kodak seemed happy enough to launch OLED cameras with full warranties, so presumably they felt that at a 2.2inch size, the fading problem wouldn't be a big one. Hopefully bigger screens with more R&D behind them would have licked this problem; I don't need my eyes getting worse if it's at all possible.

Ultimately, there's one over-riding reason why I want a 40", super-thin, semi flexible display with excellent contrast characteristics. I want someone to licence them to a camera manufacturer and put them onto the spiritual sucessor to the LS633. Then give me a camera with a 40" viewfinder. Sure, it'll be a tad difficult to get into my pockets -- I may have to get some custom pants made, perhaps -- but the size and resolution of the pictures should be exquisite, and I should never have to worry about my target wandering out of shot.