The Samsung Wall

Samsung
 

Welcome To The Future Of Display Technology: MicroLED

Anna Kucirkova

Screen technologies come and go. From cathode ray tube televisions to projectors and plasma screens, to liquid crystal displays and now organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens, the consumer market has seen all manner of screen formats, definitions, and materials.

As the smartphone, tablet, and HDTV markets have exploded, there is a non-stop arms race between manufacturers to make screens that are thinner, smaller, brighter, and sharper than the competition.

The advent of microLED technology promises to redefine how screens are made, what specs can be packed into screens of any size, and the level of resolution they achieve.

MicroLED technology is straightforward in principle. Engineers have created dramatically smaller light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and crammed more of them onto the same surface area than previous generations of LED screens.

LEDs are the miniature sources of light in screens, as well as in more traditional applications like flashlights, car head and tail lights, and traditional light bulbs. The difference between LEDs and filament bulbs is as dramatic as the difference between the first telegraph and today's smartphones, but in both cases, they aim to achieve the same function.

MicroLEDs shrink the size of LEDs down to microscopic size, which means many of them can fill the space previously occupied by a single diode or a single screen pixel. This increases resolving power and ability to render detail, but comes at the expense of brightness. Making microLEDs bright enough requires greater diode efficiency and more manufacturing complexity, and using them generates more heat and increases battery drain.

All of these drawbacks have been enough to prevent manufacturers from pursuing and implementing microLED technology in consumer products — until now.

The Time Is Right To Shrink LEDs

A limit to how small manufacturers can make LED boards is set not only by the size of diodes but also by the pitch size, which is the space between each LED and what that spacing means for screen resolution. Hardware technology and manufacturing processes are limiting factors, because LEDs can only be made so small and mounted to circuitry with a certain size and efficiency.

Instead of the few dozen yellow-blue traditional LEDs in today's LED screens, microLED screens contain three or four LEDs for each pixel, because microLED screens mix red, green, and blue signals to make colors. Each RGB trio powers one pixel, which can add up to millions of microLEDs for a TV screen. Thousands of pixels comprise individual modules, and multiple modules make up a given screen.

Shrinking LEDs provides resolving power, but it entails hardware complexity. Only recently have hardware and manufacturing technology advanced to a point that LED screens can feasibly make the move to microLED.

Manufacturers Ready to Launch MicroLED Tech

The first MicroLED TV to debut is The Wall, from Samsung, which made its debut at CES 2018. As the world's first consumer modular microLED television, The Wall can transform into any size, and delivers incredible brightness, color gamut, color volume, and black levels. This is a big step along Samsung's roadmap to the future of screen technology and the viewing experience it offers to consumers.

The breakthroughs and benefits of microLED technology include the ability to deliver brightness and resolution and clearly defined black levels, all issues with previous TVs. Most of today's LED screens are actually hybrid LCD/LED screens that use liquid crystal diodes to create the picture and an LED array behind them to backlight the screen. They come with their own problems, including image distortion or blackout from wide viewing angles, light bleed in dark sections of the screen, thick screens with two layers, and limited brightness due to absorption in the LCD layer.

The Samsung Wall is a massive screen, making its debut in 146-inch format. This looks good, of course, but engineers have not yet mastered microLED technology at smaller screen sizes. The complications surrounding scale of LEDs, power and heat generation, and cost and complexity mean that for now microLED is only being presented as a solution for massive, high-end screens. But what starts as a premium niche product may soon become the norm.

Apple is said to be working on its own microLED display research. Apple thinks microLEDs could make future iPhones even thinner and brighter than the OLED displays that recently replaced LCD screens. MicroLEDs are currently regarded as the sort of futuristic technology that OLEDs were three to five years ago.

OLEDs are behind today's cutting-edge screen technology for smartphones and tablets. Their materials make them somewhat more cost-effective to produce than microLEDs given today's manufacturing constraints.

But they suffer from a major drawback — the O: OLEDs are manufactured using organic compounds. That means they are expensive to make and the cost likely will not subside due to raw material costs. They are also limited in maximum brightness, because organic materials cannot be pushed too far, and they can suffer from burn-in like early plasma screens.

Welcome To The Future

The future of screen technology is almost certainly microLEDs. As with every new technology, there is a learning curve for manufacturers as materials science and manufacturing processes struggle to catch up to the theoretical potential of the technology.

Once manufacturers can offer the rendering benefits of microLEDs, the leap from OLED to microLED could be rapid, leaving OLEDs behind as a single-generation technology that served as a bridge to a new standard for screens from smartphones to televisions.

Samsung says it will release consumer-facing microLED TVs sometime in 2019, while Apple hints that the technology could appear in its phones within three years.

MicroLEDs will soon power all screen devices, bringing stunning resolution and brightness, from handheld to giant wall screens at home and work.
 

AR MicroLED tech is the key to building the hardware for my proposed Globall Hyperatlas (1991).

 

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