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The future of tech in just one word: plastics

Thin, bendable, organic screens of sci-fi movies are almost here.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff Writer / August 1, 2008

Flexible future: This Sony prototype “thin film transistor” uses OLED technology to make a small, bendable video screen.

Sony Electronics

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In the 2002 movie “Minority Report,” director Steven Spielberg painted the future as a place where no surface was still. Newspapers updated in readers’ hands and advertisements talked to passersby. Even cereal boxes were animated.

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Now, these technologies are finally arriving, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. One of the driving forces: breakthroughs in plastics-based electronics.

Such gadgets and displays offer several potential advantages over silicon-based electronics – chief among them, they can be manufactured by a cheaper and less energy-intensive process, they’re potentially more energy efficient, and they can bend.

The plastic electronics industry will be valued at $30 billion by 2015, and $250 billion by 2025, predicts IDTechEx, an electronics consulting company.

“Expect a whole host of innovative new applications to start appearing as plastic electronics comes of age,” proclaims an article in the July issue of Physics World.

Bright start in ‘organic’ TVs
So-called organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) – “organic” because, like all known life, they’re carbon-based – are poised to change everything from visual displays to ambient lighting.

Unlike liquid crystal displays (LCDs), OLED displays have no backlight. Each OLED pixel emits its own glow. This saves materials, energy, and space, allowing for ever thinner electronics. It also permits flexibility, viewing at obtuse angles, and, in some cases, visibility from both sides.

For years, however, OLED hopefuls have struggled with problems of durability and uneven wear. Pixels of different colors tended to wear out at different rates, leaving gaps in prototype screens. Researchers are overcoming these problems, say experts, but now the principal hurdle to a mass OLED display roll-out is the price.

In January, Sony introduced the first OLED TV in the United States. It’s 11 inches wide and only 3 millimeters thick. But this tiny TV – puny even compared to old tube TVs – retails for $2,500 and lasts more than 30,000 hours – half as long as current LCDs.

Right now, Sony views the TV as a statement – “a technology piece,” says Greg Belloni, a company spokesman in San Diego, Calif. “We have shown what we can do with this technology.”

Price aside, the superior OLED display quality has many singing its praises.

“OLEDs have profoundly beautiful color,” says Lawrence Gasman, principle analyst at NanoMarkets, LC, in Glen Allen, Va. “It is very, very impressive.”

Samsung has larger OLED TV prototypes, as do several other companies, but they’ve been slow to hit the mass market.

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