It has been over six years since the 2007 debut of the Sony XEL-1—considered by most to be the world’s first OLED television, and inarguably the first to become widely-available to consumers. But it has been a long six years for OLED technology, which has continued to evolve and offer futuristic promises, but hardly in affordable ways. Despite the announcement of Panasonic’s 3D-printed 4K display and Sony’s flexible OTFT-driven roll-up screens, OLED is still shrouded in the sort-of lore and ambiguity that describes the incomprehensible technologies that you see in Hollywood renditions of government labs. The problem with its difficulty in gaining a footing is no secret: the technology is perpetually evolving into newer generations before the previous generations of it have become affordable. Because of this, OLED to this day still begs the question—will this stuff ever this actually exist outside of Japanese trade shows and ten-million-dollar penthouses? Surely, it will—but what a long road it is taking to get there!
Shedding a Light on OLED Tech
It’s true that the technology has come a long way recently, and there is no denying that. The PlayStation® Vita features a 5” OLED display, adding to the growing list of moderately-inexpensive handheld products which employ the technology. While the PS Vita does feature a touch-screen OLED display (something still fairly uncommon in the electronics industry), it is not by any means using the technology in revolutionary or remarkable ways, which seems to be a common occurrence with most OLED-equipped handhelds that are currently available and are capable of displaying complex color images. If you were to walk into a big-box store with the intent of scooping-up the latest Korean-model OLED television, then you would knowingly be prepared to drop somewhere between $9,000-10k on a Samsung or LG setup. For that amount of money, you’d be much better-off buying an alternately-flavored product from RUNCO that will outperform OLED and last so long that you can will it to your future grandkids.
What is exciting about the tedium of the OLED display market, however, is that there are a few dark horses that may begin to take the OLED spotlight in an entirely different facet of the industry: lighting. Both Konica Minolta and Mitsubishi have announced commercial lines of OLED lighting panels which are currently in production and are theoretically slated to enter the consumer marketplace in the near future. In doing this, the two corporations have joined a growing list of over twenty-three other companies who have established themselves in the OLED lighting field which has been expanding since the 90’s.
Mitsubishi Chemical has teamed-up with Pioneer to produce their latest model OLED lighting panel, which is being received as the world’s first to be printed with an emissive and bottom layer, capable of outputting a white light. The development is exciting because the two companies are reporting that their new method has a manufacturing cost that is 10% of the current standard using the Vacuum Thermal Evaporation, or, “VTE” process. VTE is one of the main reasons that OLED is so expensive—it is a process which allows organic molecules to condense into thin films that can bind to a layered substrate; a core task in producing the “sandwich” of components that comprise the actual panel. If this dramatic cost reduction proves to be true, it is very possible that similar technological advancements could ultimately be applied to the color display manufacturing side of the OLED industry…and that could be a game-changer for everyone. It could also get interesting, seeing as how both Pioneer and Mitsubishi have been long-time competitors in the high-end AV industry. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time in recent years that we have seen competing Japanese manufacturers team-up to try and stay ahead of their Korean competitors who have made a fortune in recent years by selling lower-quality HD products in bulk which get-the-job-done at considerably lower retail prices.
Konica Minolta has been taking a slightly different approach to the industry than Pioneer and Mitsubishi have been. In doing so, the company has branded its OLED illumination line “Symfos”, with an outwardly-vocal attention-to-the-environment attitude and an emphasis on the “soft” phosphorescent-like aesthetic that the company wants its products to bear the connotation of. Konica Minolta has also been a bit more up-front in terms of its openness to information on specs (which possibly takes-away from the anticipation and allure of its product in doing so, but could ultimately prove to be a smart move).
A five-piece Symfos “sample pack” can be ordered from the Konica Minolta website for about $1,000 USD, sans shipping. You have to source your own wire, AC adapter and “driver box”…and the offer is only available to “companies, corporations and research institutes” at this time (of course). But, at least the offer is out on-the-table, and frankly, $200 per unit is not a terrible price for a top-of-the-line panel at this stage in the game, where the technology hardly exists in the public sphere. Well, that is true unless you want to drop $5k on a Phillippe Starck “Light Photon” designer table lamp by Flos. And of course, when it comes to anything lighting-related, you can always turn to Philips, who has been on the vanguard of innovative lighting more than ever in recent years, offering the latest technologies to anyone who can afford it, and can put-up with a few added reservations (in all fairness, it’s the price you pay for ‘getting-it-first’). Philips is currently offering their 2.91” square “Lumiblade” OLED cells for under $200, but under some instances, you are forced into buying a minimum quantity of 100, or buying starter kits and having to purchase separate components in potentially-frustrating ways.
At this point in time, it is too early for most to delve into the OLED market—the technology is mostly unrefined in terms of its practicality for the modern consumer. While most SolidSmack readers are probably more-than-capable of jerry-rigging an array of the panels together with some third-party power conditioners and ad-hoc wiring, for most of us, it’s simply not worth the time or money, unless you are working on a phosphorescent glowing sculpture for MoMA (which we all do sometimes when we are bored).
The fun thing about all of this, however, is to watch the parallels unfold respectively in screen development and in lighting in the future of OLED, and to see which areas draw from one another as advancements are made to evolving iterations. If you are a prospective investor, then it is, of course, critically important to keep an eye out for the technical details of the technology itself as it continues to change on an almost weekly basis. For OLED lighting panels, the critical points right now (aside from the all-important price point) are the life of the panels and the luminance (light output). Mitsubishi and Pioneer are expecting their 2014 product to have a life of 30,000 hours with an output of 2,000 cd/m² luminance. For a comparison, a typical computer display emits between 50 and 300 cd/m² (depending on your brightness-level setting). Konica Minolta’s current product provides 1,000 cd/m² with an 8,000 hour life. The output of Philips’ higher-end model, the “Square Tall White PLUS” rates at similar outputs to Konica Minolta’s product, but details are not as clear and make it difficult to relay a comparison.
(Image of Sony OLED roll-up panel image via ZDNet and CBS Interactive, 2013)
(Image featuring Philips Lumiblade panels on acrylic table via OLED News and Information)
(Image of sole diagonal Pioneer/Mitsubishi Chemical panel via OLED Association)
(Image of iPad-Controlled Pioneer OLED panels via OLED News and Information)
(Image of folding Pioneer OLED Panels via newelectronics and Findlay Media Ltd. (UK))
(Images of hands holding Symfos panels via Konica Minolta, Inc.)