OLEDs: Where We'll See Them, and What Will Beat Them


Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch

Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) have been the talk of green lighting and display for what feels like ages now. In the last few years, we've started to see the technology applied to consumer electronics like digital photo frames, cell phones, and more recently, televisions. OLEDs are to be the next generation in lighting, in computer monitors, in seemingly anything we can dream up that has a need for light or displays. So, where are we seeing OLEDs turn up, why aren't they common yet, and what technology will beat out this purportedly ultra energy efficient technology that is moving forward at a snail's pace?What's OLED Technology?
First off, you probably have heard of OLED but might not know quite what it is. Rather than go into detail here, we'll point you to HowStuffWorks, which gives a concise but through explanation.

You can also get a quick idea thanks to MIT with this video:

One of the reasons OLEDs have the eye of the green community is because they're more energy efficient than LCD technology, currently the darling for displays like computer monitors and televisions. They provide exceptional color quality while sipping energy, and can be made so thin that they even hold potential for flexible displays and lighting, making designers chomp at the bit (though that hasn't stopped many from dreaming up uses already). We've heard that OLEDs will start to appear more prominently in the market place around 2015. But why not now? Well, several things hold OLED technology back.

Why Aren't We Seeing OLEDS on the Market?
First, price. It's still very expensive to create OLEDs and therefore the prices of what they're used in go up. Kodak brought out a digital photo frame priced at an astounding $1,000 and LG recently brought a 15" OLED TV to market but that was priced at $2,500...for a 15" TV. With pricing like that, OLEDs have to be brought down to parity with LCDs in order to compete. We're already seeing OLEDs in much smaller scale devices like cell phones, but for anything larger, we have a wait.

Second, somewhat surprisingly, is efficiency. OLED technology is about 15 years behind LED technology, it's big sister. When it comes to electronics like LED-back-lit televisions and computer monitors, OLEDs don't come close to competing in efficiency. At least not yet, and not for a long, long time.

Finally, lifespan is a large hindrance. Currently, OLED displays only last for about 1,000 hours. That means that we'll be replying on LED and LCD displays until they manage to catch up.

However, the potential for low power, flexible displays make OLED technology of great interest for everything from glowing wallpaper to luminescent fabric, let alone for TVs and lighting. The market is set to be huge...just, not quite yet. Here are some of the places we're already seeing OLED technology applied.

OLED Lighting
Lighting designs incorporating OLEDs are already well underway. The fact that they can be made exceptionally thin and flexible - as well as their potential for energy efficiency - makes them a favorite medium among green designers.

As for greater efficiency for lighting, the industry is getting a boost from private companies and the government alike, showing we have a particular impatience when it comes to innovative lighting.

And innovative we'll get. The technology is inspiring everything from reading lights to glowing wall paper. It seems the future is limitless for OLEDs...if we can make them as cost efficient as other lighting technology.


Image via Random International
OLED Televisions
This is one of the biggies for the OLED market. Both Sony and LG have already put out OLED televisions, though they're both small (11" and 15" respectively) and very, very expensive, underscoring the point that OLEDs don't yet have a spot in the marketplace except among really early adopters. While LG is working hard on making 40" OLED TVs available by 2012, it's not probable that anyone but the super rich could afford them. However, the market isn't just among individual consumers. Businesses will also have a hand in the TV market as there is the possibility of large-scale displays utilizing high efficiency OLEDs constructed to various shapes and sizes for display walls and billboards.

OLEDs for Hand-held Devices
Unlike the larger size of the TV display, we are already seeing OLED technology pop up all over the place, thanks to the smaller size. The miniature displays of cell phones are perfect for OLED use. This is where the efficiency of OLEDs stands out, especially when color requirements are minimized. Everyone from AT&T; to Google with their new Nexus One phone are utilizing OLED technology for displays.

OLED Computer Screens
Computer monitors and notebook screens are the middle ground between TVs and cell phones, and we're going to see OLEDs pop up more often here before they really make it in the TV market. Computer screens are where OLEDs will shine, specifically among notebooks, once they catch up in efficiency and price. Apple is looking at OLEDs for new notebooks, and it was rumored that the iPad might have had an OLED display, should there have been a supplier of 10" screens available soon enough. Alas, there wasn't, but we still got energy-efficiency LED-backlit LCD screens in that device. However, designers are already dreaming up where flexible OLED screens will be useful in laptop design, and it's only a matter of time.


Image via Crave
OLEDs in Games
Even games won't be passed up by OLED technology. Innovators are already figuring out how OLEDs can be used in board games, to create video games based on interactive pieces. Whether or not OLED or e-Ink technology is better for this medium is yet to be seen, but the possibility of seeing our board games become much more lively is already here.

OLED...Clothing??
Yep, even clothing isn't left out. There has already been one dress created out of OLEDs - a complete PR stunt, but still... - and as designers start to incorporate lighting into their fashions more and more, OLEDs will indeed play a role.

Other Technologies Competing with OLED

LEDs LEDs are currently more energy efficient and more affordable than OLED and LCDs, and they're a primary focus for lighting and display technology. They have a roughly 15 year lead in research, and researchers are still making leaps and bounds in making them more energy efficient. OLEDs have quite a horse race to run if they want to one day catch up. For now, the real market focus for the big ticket items like light bulbs, computer monitors and televisions is on LEDs.


Photo via Jaymi Heimbuch
LED-Backlit LCDs
This hybrid of LED and LCD technology is starting to come onto the market more strongly. It was talked about quite a bit last year, with electronics companies developing some gadgets and appliances, but this past year we've seen more come onto market. They provide a great image quality for a far smaller wattage requirement, but are still price prohibitive. Nanosys is one company working to make LED-backlit LCDs even better, creating a coating that increases the quality of the LED backlight so that the colors are incredibly rich. This will give OLEDs an even bigger run for their money.

PHOLED
OLEDs, however, aren't at a complete loss. Researchers are working on ways to utilize phosphorescence to make OLEDs even more energy efficient. Called PHOLEDs, the technology promises to increase efficiency by a factor of four. Impressive!

Laser Phosphorescent Displays
One more interesting technology that only just hit our radar is LPD technology. By utilizing lasers to stimulate the phosphors that produce the images on a screen, it claims to cut energy consumption by 75%. We have yet to see this actually pan out and be adopted. But if true, it could also be a strong competitor with OLEDs.

More on OLED Technology
How OLEDs Work and Why They're Green (Video)
Mitsubishi Makes Tiny OLED Squares That Create Humongous TVs (Video)
Clean Tech Forum 2009: OLED Association Gives Us an OLED Status Update

Tags: Concepts & Prototypes | Electronics | Energy Efficiency | Lighting

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