Why an OLED curved-screen TV may be the best in the world

New screen technology is putting sharper, clearer and smoother TV viewing in the frame, and one company is leading the way

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 May, 2015, 6:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 May, 2015, 6:02am

If you wanted a luxe television in 2013, it had to be LED. In 2014 it was curved screens, with Samsung flooding the market trying to convince us that we need a "gently contoured" set in our homes.

However, neither of these innovations are worth spending big money on. In 2015, that honour goes to OLED, a screen technology that, for now, is the reserve of a sole producer, LG.

The South Korean company's 55EC9300 OLED television is on sale in Hong Kong for just under HK$45,000. It has a 55-inch curved screen but what's so special about it? LED TVs have an always-on backlight that makes black areas of the picture look grey - especially if you watch with the lights off. However, OLED (which stands for organic light-emitting diode) boasts deep, inky blacks. It gives a much more convincing picture, but there's more.

Light is produced by passing electricity through a thin layer of carbon-based organic dyes, but because it's done at a pixel level (there are more than two million of them in the 55EC9300) and the OLED panel is made entirely of self-lighting pixels, it's a much faster technology than LED, which means smooth, fast-moving images free from blur and judder. The fluidity is quite something, and it's hard to go back to watching an LED television. OLED also happens to be incredibly energy-efficient.

OLED panels have a depth of 4mm, which designers love, but no other company aside from LG has been able to make OLED TVs successfully. That's largely because it's a very sensitive technology that has proven difficult for engineers to produce reliably in large sizes. The high price of the 55EC9300 isn't going to face much of a challenge for some time, although Chinese manufacturers Haier and Skyworth have begun to use LG's core technology in their own OLED TVs this year.

"OLED panel production is still very difficult," says Paul Gagnon at the Austin, Texas office of NPD DisplaySearch, which studies the global TV market. "Samsung has pulled back from large-format OLED, but LG continues to press forward and is the only brand to have ramped up commercial production," he says.

Other brands are still in the development phase, but Sony and Panasonic recently ditched a joint venture to produce OLED TVs. "OLED production processes suffer from low yields, which greatly increases the price of the panels," Gagnon adds.

LG has been able to improve the production yields of the panels by developing a unique system that produces only white light, which then goes through a red, green, blue and white colour filter. "Most would agree that OLED produces a substantially better picture than LCD, and with plasma fading from the market, there is an opportunity for another display technology to emerge for video enthusiasts who are passionate about picture quality," says Gagnon. "However, for OLED to emerge as a significant technology in the high-end TV market, and later in the mainstream, it needs to come down in price to a level comparable with the best LCD TVs."

We may have to wait for OLED TVs to be a feature of most homes, but the advantages of OLED for smaller gadgets hasn't gone unnoticed by product designers, with the super-slim screen tech becoming fashionable in everything from smartphones and radios to smart watches and even desk lamps.

OLED has unique [traits] that make it the ideal light source
Michael Helander, President, OTI Lumionics

OLED technology has been much more visible in luxe smartphones over the past couple of years. Here, Samsung is still very much in the OLED market, with its flagship products now adorned with its own rather fabulous AMOLED screens (the AM stands for active-matrix). As well as its flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone, Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 and its Gear S smart watch are fitted with AMOLED. It's arguably at this much smaller size that the technology is getting stress-tested and improved, with the Galaxy Note 4's AMOLED screen even boasting a "quad HD" resolution. A new, better display is also probably more important at this small size, with AMOLED's viewing angles far superior to LED; if you glance at the Gear S' screen from a tight angle, which most wearers do, it's as easy to read as when you look at it face-on.

AMOLED has become almost expected in most luxe devices of this sort, though there are two companies that are taking the technology to the next stage.

A Canadian start-up that emerged from the University of Toronto, OTI Lumionics recently unveiled the first lamp that uses OLED, citing it as a warm, natural light source. Launched by its sales arm Aerelight Design, the rather elegant aerelight (HK$1,854, pre-order at aerelight.com is powered exclusively by an advanced energy-efficient OLED light panel. The aerelight boasts an incredibly thin profile and there's no light bulb to replace.

"OLED technology has so far been limited to only high-end smartphone displays and TVs," says Michael G. Helander, co-founder and president at OTI Lumionics. "OLED has many unique characteristics that make it the ideal light source of the future, but potential growth has been stifled by the high manufacturing cost barrier."

A similar problem has affected the TV industry, but Helander thinks he's cracked it. "For the past few years, we have been working on making OLED technology more accessible to new markets and product applications. The aerelight desk lamp is built to accentuate the unique and ultra-thin profile of OLED lighting, and is the first of many applications of this technology from our team."

The design-centric features of the aerelight underline that claim. Using only a fraction of the energy of traditional light sources, the aerelight desk lamp delivers full-spectrum warm light that can be dimmed. The product has no buttons. Instead it's controlled by touching anywhere on the anodised aluminium frame. It also includes a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad in its base.

"Our hope is that the aerelight desk lamp will inspire people to rethink the possibilities of lighting design," says Ray Kwa, the lead industrial designer behind the aerelight desk lamp. This next-gen lamp is sold in red, silver and black.

The other chief innovator of OLED is Britain-based Plastic Logic, which recently unveiled the first fully organic flexible OLED prototype. Its aim is to take AMOLED panels and make them bendable.

Why? Analysts at IHS predict that the market for flexible AMOLED displays could reach US$12 billion by 2020. Plastic Logic, which plans to work with global display makers and consumer electronics companies to popularise the flexible AMOLED screens, uses plastic instead of glass.

Until now the resolution, the substandard colours and the flickery video these flexible screens produce have rendered them little more than a novelty, but Plastic Logic's latest product features 256 grey levels and 30 frames per second video, which is - at last - fluid enough to enjoy. Colour is the next target.

The idea of a flexible screen might still sound crazy to some, but with a new era of wearable devices now upon us, the curved and irregular shapes of the human body require new, versatile technologies.

Put simply, a smart watch or bracelet can have a much larger display if it bends around the product. With the Internet of Things beckoning, too, every device will be connected to each other; your kettle, your rice cooker and even your toothbrush might need a curved, flexible wrap-around screen.

Luckily, OLED - which, as well as being slim and flexible, is also capable of producing the best image quality ever seen - at last looks like it's been tamed.