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Peering into visual future with OLEDs

By Daniel Sieberg
CNN Headline News

Kodak EasyShare LS633
Eastman Kodak recently released the first digital camera -- the Kodak EasyShare LS633 -- that incorporates an OLED screen in the preview window.

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(CNN) -- LCD, CRT, LED -- they're all ways of displaying graphics, pixels, images, you name it. Even if you don't know their abbreviations, you see their output every time you look at your computer or cell phone.

The alphabet soup of acronyms will get an eye-opening addition when OLEDs become a big part of the way you see, well, all screen images.

That's according to the proponents of OLEDs, or Organic Light-Emitting Diodes, who say the technology could one day revolutionize many parts of the high-tech industry.

With the flexible version of OLEDs, tiny screens can be narrower than the width of a human hair, potentially capable of creating items like thin, portable newspapers that roll out of a pen-size device and video screens embedded in clothing. OLEDs that aren't malleable would be used in products that don't require them to bend, such as flat-screen monitors.

What's so special about OLEDs?

The key is a luminous screen that has no back light, and is therefore capable of more vibrant colors while burning less power. It uses a process called electroluminescence, which also means the image doesn't lose quality when viewed from an angle.

Companies like Universal Display Corp., Cambridge Display and Eastman Kodak are racing to complete research and development of OLEDs, which are still three to five years away from being widely adopted in gadgets like cell phones screens, PDAs and digital cameras.

Although not mass-marketed yet, Eastman Kodak recently released the first digital camera -- the Kodak EasyShare LS633 -- that incorporates an OLED screen in the preview window. Numerous other firms including Samsung, Sony, Motorola, and DuPont are waiting in the wings.

But before you start dreaming of scenes from "Minority Report," keep in mind there are some limitations and kinks that need to be addressed.

Robyn Peterson, features editor at PC Magazine, and says OLEDs are "the wave of the future for display technology," but cautions that the major stumbling block is faster degradation of the image.

The organic or phosphorescent nature of OLEDs means certain colors are prone to fade faster over time. However, Peterson says he believes it's an issue the industry will eventually resolve.

Janice Mahon from Universal Display, demonstrating the potential of OLEDs to CNN, acknowledges there are some challenges ahead, but she says scientists are overcoming them. (Universal Display works with Princeton University and the University of Southern California.)

She brought along a prototype belt pack with a miniature OLED screen worked into the fabric, which she says demonstrates the portable nature of the technology.

Mahon also says the military is looking into how OLEDs could be used in uniforms and battle gear, to create, say, an ever-changing and updated display inside a soldier's helmet visor.

Plenty of technologies promise the "next big thing," but the OLED seems to be one worth keeping an eye on.

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