Bend it like OLED!

  • As the technology matures, Organic LED has moved from small devices like mobile phones and watches, to large format TVs. But the killer app will come when large OLEDS are flexible.

Television technology has gone through five ages. When Indians first found it worth their while to invest in a TV set, in the early 1980s, they were still bulbous boxes which used a cathode ray tube to display the picture.  I remember, television transmissions in Kerala commenced a few days before the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984—what a rush there was for a KELTRON-made set! Both colour and monochrome were available in the standard 20 inch size. All I could afford in those days was a12 inch black-and-white portable set and UPTRON sold thousands of these in Kochi—for Rs 2500.

In the late 1990s came the first flat screen Plasma TVs, which provided outstanding images but were very heavy and  consumed a lot of power. Again, Kerala was the place to be. Every flight from the 'Gulf' brought some 20-25 plasmas as passengers' checked in baggage, the status symbol of the returning Malayalee. Soon, they were to be had across some well hidden counters in Chavakkad and Malappuram.

The LCD flat TVs which appeared around 2005, were almost as good—image-wise-- while being lighter to carry and lighter on the purse. This was Generation Three of the TV. 

Then the industry coined another term: "LED TV" which was only the LCD screen,  back-lit by a bank of light emitting diodes or LEDs. It has remained the dominant TV format for over a decade now


The industry improved the quality of the LCD TV image and threw out acronyms like HD and UHD which were not new display technologies but only ways of defining how sharp the picture was: in other words definition: high definition could be 720p or 1080p, the latter distinguished as 'full' HD. In the last 2 years, we have had TV sets whose image resolution is twice that of the full HD This standard is confusingly called Ultra HD or '4k'. The 4k is with reference to the standard or 720p HD: UHD is four times denser in the number of pixels compared to 720p HD. Though many Direct to Home TV service providers  are selling 4K set top boxes, there is as yet little 4k/ UHD content and what there is, turns out to be seasonal—whenever a big sports event is staged. Third party pay by subscription channels like Netflix have 4k content, much of it upscaled from 2K or lesser archives.

The fifth generation of TV display technology has, unknown to most of us, been around from 2013—but is  widely available only now. It is called OLED or Organic Light Emitting Diode. This is different from the LED-lit LCD TVs in a basic way. While all of the pixels in an LCD TV screen are illuminated by an LED back light panel, each pixel in an OLED TV produces its own illumination. OLEDS are called organic because they are made from carbon and hydrogen. OLED TV screens are essentially organic thin films sandwiched between two conductors. When electrical current is applied, a bright light is emitted. Because they emit their own light, they do not require a backlight and are therefore much thinner than LED- LCD displays


OLEDs have been in use on small devices like phones and watches for soem time. OnePlus 3, Samsung Galaxy Note 7, Oppo F1 Plus and Asus ZenFone 3 are four smart phones launched in India in 2016, which use OLED for their display screens, in the procvess, making the phones much thinner and lighter. 

Another useful property of OLED is that you can bend it: Because it is flexible it has been used to fashion wearables devices like Asus ZenWatch and Samsung Gear as well as Virtual reality headsets like HTC Vive

So what's stopping industry from moving smartly to OLEDS across phone and TV? Well, cost for one thing. Square cm for cm, OLEDS have been costly to fabricate. It makes sense for small areas like a 4-6 inch phone, but manufacturing cost escalates sharply when you go for the popular TV sizes which means 32 inch or more.

LG—which virtually pioneered the OLED TV 3 years ago, does not see such a physical barrier. At its India manufacturing plant in Ranjangaon, near Pune, I was present, as a member of a press party last month, when OLED TVs in large formats—55 inch and 65 inch in its new E6 series, rolled off the assembly line—for Indian, African and Persian Gulf markets.

The OLED TV screens  I saw in Pune were extremely thin—4 mm- 6 mm at the least width. But they were still rigid.  


I'm guessing, the true potential of OLEDS lies in its bendable nature. Innovative companies are trying out flexible OLED panels in many interesting situations: PC screens that can be wrapped around your arm; a patient's case sheet that can be contoured to fit any part of the body, a TV that you can roll up like a map and carried with you. I have seen a demo, offering a vision of the future, where OLED panels have been combined with another breakthrough technology—e-ink-- to create a flexible newspaper that refreshes itself every day—or every hour if you so like—through a tiny embedded antenna that connects to the Internet. 

It is by no means impossible that one day in the not too distant future, we will have stopped cutting down trees to make the newsprint consumed in hundreds of tonnes by newspapers. Rather, we would invest in a broadsheet of OLED which will be refreshed every morning with new content through the home WiFi hotspot. And if you leave for office, well, you fold the OLED paper and carry with you in purse or pocket to read on the way!

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