On the Frontlines of Innovation:  Inspiration for “Skin-Like” Displays

On the Frontlines of Innovation:  Inspiration for “Skin-Like” Displays

by Jason Heikenfeld

I love reading Information Display because I can conveniently get the industry and commercial information that I will never find by reading technical articles alone.  However, in the longer term, our future will be determined by emerging technologies for which even a blueprint for pilot manufacturing does not yet exist.  Our society, and the mature display industry, must continue to advance new technology and applications to keep our R&D engines churning out new products and to avoid a purely commoditized and low-profit industry.  Fortunately, plenty of challenges and opportunities remain.

I will argue that one of the biggest of these challenges is to make displays ubiquitous.  Your immediate reaction is likely that displays are already ubiquitous.  However, that could not be farther from the truth, as nearly all commercial displays are rigid and fixed in form factor.  When we have a display, nearly always it is part of a device itself, and the presence of the device is obvious.  When displays become ubiquitous, you will not need to reach into your pocket to pull it out; it will always and already be where you need it, and when you are not using it, you will not even know it is there.

There are some innovative attempts to arrive at this state of ubiquity, such as Google Glass, but optics imposes significant challenges for increasing the performance and ergonomics of near-to-eye displays.  So what other options exist?  Well, a significant leap toward ubiquity will be made as soon as color video displays become foldable or even wearable and stretchy.  The concept of a rollable display has been tantalizingly close to commercialization; recall the former Polymer Vision and its attempt with its Readius product.  At that time, lack of color and video made the advantages of a large display you could fold up and store in your pocket seem antiquated compared to the then new large-screen-only iPhone.  In another example, Kent Displays has shown for some time now the capability to make thermo-formed displays that conform to even compound curvatures, but once these are set into their final geometry they are completely rigid.

So, where do we go from here?  Well, one of the goals of this issue of Information Display is to stretch our imagination as a community.  This issue is more than just ideas or concepts.  We have assembled a list of authors deeply involved in the type of sciences and fundamental engineering breakthroughs that will ultimately lead toward our capability of creating flexible even conformal displays.  The Someya group at the University of Tokyo has contributed an article titled “Imperceptible Electronic Skin,” which includes sophisticated integration of both sensory and display technology.  In addition, an article from the Pei Group at UCLA teaches us how to create organic LED displays that stretch much like skin.  Finally, we have a contribution from the Hanlon Research Group at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, one of the top international research groups when it comes to understanding displays in nature.  This third contribution, while not electronic, shows how nature achieves performance levels in the skin of cuttlefish, squid, and other animals that even our best laboratory demonstrations fall well short of.  Collectively, these articles offer key pieces of the puzzle, for both emissive and reflective displays, when it comes to commercialization of conformal and stretchable or skin-like displays.

To be fair, most of us will still prefer to view content on a flat screen.  Think of the old days of reading the newspaper and “fluffing it out” to make it flat so you could read it.  Who wants to have to mess with a display like that?  However, the opportunity for stretchable, conformal, and flexible display technologies is significant once they can provide the performance desired for wearable use, or the low cost required for applications such as smart packaging.  The authors for this issue will hopefully inspire all of us to continue taking steps toward that ultimate goal of ubiquitous displays: when displays are able to disappear into the surfaces and products we encounter each and every day.  •


Jason Heikenfeld is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Systems and Director of the Novel Devices Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. He can be reached at heikenjc@cincinnati.uc.edu