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Flexible screens expected to inspire a host of new devices

January 21, 2011 | Chris Payatagool
flexible_screen.jpgBy Brandon Bailey via

Later this year, Hewlett-Packard researchers say, they expect to deliver to the U.S. Army a working prototype of what they're calling a "Dick Tracy wristwatch" - a lightweight, wearable device that soldiers in the field can use to view digital maps and other data on a flexible plastic screen that won't shatter or crack like glass.

Though it will be spartan by design, researchers say HP's prototype could be one of the first in a new wave of products incorporating flexible electronic displays. Freed from the constraints of a rigid glass screen, designers could one day build flexible plastic displays into clothing, wall coverings and perhaps even e-readers or tablets that can roll up like a newspaper.

"You can start thinking about putting electronic displays on things where you wouldn't ordinarily think of having them," said Nick Colaneri, a scientist and director of the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University. "How about a stack of thin displays that I can peel off and stick on things, sort of like a pad of Post-It notes?"

Long before those hit the market, however, flexible plastic displays will provide tablets, smart phones and other portable computers with big screens that weigh less and are far more durable than today's models, said Carl Taussig, director of advanced display research at HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif.

"Unlike glass, plastic doesn't break when you drop it on the floor," said Taussig, whose employer has a vested interest in electronic displays, as the world's biggest seller of personal computers.

Experts have long predicted a big future for flexible displays. The Defense Department has funded efforts to develop lightweight screens that soldiers can use in hostile environments. A host of computer-makers and electronics companies are working on commercial applications.

"We're quite bullish on this market," said Jennifer Colegrove, vice president for emerging technologies at DisplaySearch, an industry research and consulting firm, which estimates that sales of flexible displays will grow from $85 million in 2008 to more than $8 billion in 2018.

But technical issues have made it a long and sometimes frustrating quest. Mountain View, Calif.-based Plastic Logic showed off a prototype e-reader with a flexible display last year, dubbed the "Que," only to announce later that its commercial release would be delayed indefinitely.

 Standard components for liquid crystal displays, used in most portable computers today, generally require a rigid glass to keep images from being distorted. Traditional displays also depend on transistors that are embedded in glass through processes that involve temperatures high enough to melt or distort plastic.

Taussig's team at HP, however, is working with plastic film that is both lighter and thinner than glass, and which can be stored in rolls. Their method resembles, in a sense, the way newspapers are printed from giant spools of paper.

The process starts with rolls of plastic that has been treated with thin layers of metal and other material. The plastic is run through a press that imprints a microscopic, three-dimensional pattern, which can then be etched to create transistors on the film. These can transmit instructions to electrically charged particles or diodes contained in a second layer of plastic, which then displays text or images.

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