Scientists create ultra-thin, high-resolution flexible display

Photograph by Sean Gallup — Getty Images

As the market for smart glasses heats up, Google faces the difficult challenge of displaying top-quality visual images on a screen the size of a fingerprint.

Now researchers led by scientists at the University of Oxford in the UK believe they may have made a discovery that solves that problem.

Writing in the journal Nature Thursday, Harish Bhaskaran, Peiman Hosseini and C. David Wright say they have found a way to create pixels just a few hundred nanometers across that could one day lead to high-resolution, low-energy and flexible displays. They could be used in smart glasses as well as synthetic retinas, smart contact lenses and foldable screens.

“Current microdisplay technologies based on liquid crystals, microelectromechanical systems and organic light-emitting diodes are attracting considerable attention because of a growing interest in wearable technology,” the authors wrote in the paper published Thursday.

“Key requirements for such applications are high resolutions, high speed and low power consumption, all of which are met by the technology described here.”

Essentially, the researchers have come up with a novel use for phase-change materials, which has been around for decades. They have long been used to store data, especially on rewriteable CDs and DVDs. But until now no one had figured out how to tap into their display potential.

Bhaskaran said he was initially attracted to the material because it was active both optically and electronically. But it wasn’t until he and his colleagues started working with it in the lab that they realized that its optical properties far outperformed what is available on the market today — a resolution that is 50 times better.

“The first thing we demonstrated is you can actually get extremely high resolution pixels,” Bhaskaran said. “In our case, the smallest pixels we’ve shown are 100 nanometers or less. Each of those images are 70 microns across, which is roughly the diameter of a human hair.”

The researchers have filed a patent on their product and are in discussions with an unnamed firm that specializes liquid crystal display applications, Bhaskaran said. They also have received a grant of $240,000 to develop a prototype from Isis Innovation, which helps Oxford researchers commercialize their discoveries.

Richard Holliday, a technology transfer team leader at Isis, said that the discovery could lead to very “disruptive display technology” if the researchers can find the right use for it. One area worth exploring, he said, is virtual reality gaming.

“The display market is huge. It’s predicted to be $165 billion in 2017,” Holliday said. “At the moment, we are looking at which segments of that market would benefit most from the unique characteristics this technology has got. One of the most exciting is projection-based displays where you project a small display up into a larger area. Therefore, you need high resolution otherwise you end up with a highly pixilated-type display.”

Along with its high resolution, Hosseini said another attractive aspect of the technology is that uses much less energy.

“One of the advantages of our design is that, unlike most conventional LCD screens, there would be no need to constantly refresh all pixels,” he said. You would only have to refresh those pixels that actually change (static pixels remain as they were). This means that any display based on this technology would have extremely low energy consumption.”

When asked about the new technology’s commercial merits, Google (GOOG) said they had “nothing to add here.”

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