Flexible, micro-thin display screens promise to revolutionize our mobile devices

Andrew Fazekas
Highly flexible substrates in transparent mode.

When it comes to your mobile device displays, you haven't seen anything yet.

Imagine a thin, flexible display screen with individual pixel sizes measured in nanometres that could simply fold into your pocket or stick on your wall. A new display technology discovery promises to revolutionize how and where we use our mobile devices.

A new research study published in this week's journal of Nature has shown the proof of concept for using what are known as 'phase change materials' – materials that can rapidly switch between amorphous and crystalline states when heat or electrical charge is applied – as building blocks for a whole new generation of ultra-high resolution displays.

As more and more of us are filling our lives with mobile devices, there is a growing trend for higher-resolution screens with faster response times in a smaller package.

Manufacturers are already jumping on this trend, creating wearable devices like Samsung's smartwatch and Google's smart glasses, and soon Apple's mythical iWatch.

Now an Oxford University-led team of scientists is taking this trend to go ultra-small by developing an optoelectronic device that could be used to make ultrathin displays of ultra-high resolution. The trick is to sandwich the phase change material between two transparent layers of electrodes so that electrically they can 'change' the colour that the films reflect or transmit.

Amazingly, these individual sandwich pixel-like devices measure only 300 to 400 nanometres across – no wider than some of the smallest bacteria known.

"The main advantage of these displays is not only that they have ultra-high resolution, but also are solid state that can be put on highly flexible films," said team leader Harish Bhaskaran, a materials scientists at Oxford University in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.

"Also, power consumption is low and in many respects it can retain the image until you go and change it, so no power is required when the image is static, unlike conventional screens that require refreshing," added Bhaskaran.

Next step for the team is to build a small working prototype mobile device. And because this technology exists only in the lab, Bhaskaran warns that "there are many technical challenges that remain to be solved before this can become a viable technology."

But he optimistically predicts these devices could hit the streets in as little as five years. The team believes in their discovery enough that they have already filed for a patent.

This technology may also hold the key in developing a single device that could toggle between back-lit and power-saving mode, something users can't currently do on tablets.

And because these displays have much higher resolution than anything we have on the market now, entire high-resolution screens the size of a postage stamp or smaller are possible.

"One can use them in projection systems where a micro display is projected out using optics to magnify the image so human eyes can perceive them. Examples of these include smart glasses," explained Bhaskaran.

Bhaskaran sees a day when they will be able to make these displays go even thinner and simply peeled off like a sticker and slapped onto any surface where we want to have a screen. Bedroom wall, coffee table, counter top or even a car window – the possibilities seem endless. How cool is that?

"Thinner is better," he said. "I personally like [the idea of] having paper-thin stickers which are active displays that you can 'stick' anywhere, and use it as a display."

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