Don’t Look Now: Disappearing Displays

This article is part of TechXchange: Advanced Display Technology

What you’ll learn:

  • Disappearing displays and the four buckets to put them in.
  • Examples of disappearing displays.

For those of us in the tech industry, inventions from the iconic Star Wars saga and Star Trek series have led to decades of inspiration — some of which we are still trying to build today. Even over the last few years, I’ve been thrilled to see many of my colleagues pushing the envelope on next-generation digital display technologies.

One segment of this industry I see opportunities for innovation is what I call “disappearing” displays — displays that don’t get in the way when they aren’t being viewed, so to speak. Sort of like the character Jeeves in PG Wodehouse’s popular novels who could appear and disappear at will.

Let me give you a little bit more context. Have you noticed people turning towards their Alexa / Google Assistant devices to ask a question? Or noticed people in a conference room on an audio call, staring at the phone while speaking? How about in the car where people turn to the GPS display while speaking on their hands-free phone? Why is this?

Humans are visual creatures. But we also want to see displays when we need them. The rest of the time we would prefer for them to be out of the way, merged with the background, virtually disappearing until we need them again.

When CRTs were replaced with flat-panel LCD TVs, we reclaimed substantial floor space in our living rooms, conference rooms, and hotel rooms. TVs moved from the floor to the wall, but while they’re thinner, the monstrous mounting brackets and swiveling arms cause these ugly beasts to jut out. If you’ve bumped into the TV while navigating around the conference room table or into the massive TV larger than your bed in your hotel room, you know what I’m talking about.

We love those screens, but they’re in the way and are inconvenient after we’re done with our video call or movie. They gotta go; they ought to get out of the way.

Sometimes all you want is the screen to stop flickering, dim down, and disappear into the background when you no longer need it. They don’t need to physically disappear in all instances.

Disappearing displays already exist — we don’t think of them that way, though, until today. I came up with four buckets to put them in:

  • Physically disappearing displays: These include old-style TVs inside a cabinet where you can shut the doors to make them “hidden,” to the more recent LG TV that retracts into its base, or even projector screens that can retract to the ceiling. These displays physically disappear or remain hidden when they aren’t being used.
  • Shrinking displays: These displays can be folded or rolled or otherwise shrunk from their original size to something smaller in the XY dimension so that they’re less obtrusive after use. One example is a foldable phone or foldable laptop / tablet (obviously, these aren’t like your old-school flip phones).
  • Quiet displays: Here, the display doesn’t physically retract or shrink; it just goes into a quiet mode. When not in use, they’re about as distracting as a piece of printed paper. A good example is Joan, which includes an ePaper display that doesn’t flicker or distract like its LCD counterparts when not in use, and it uses 99% less energy.
  • Metaphoric displays: Users lose themselves in these displays, such as with an Amazon Kindle where you no longer “see” the display when you’re engrossed in reading. As then Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos described it, the top design goal for the Kindle device was “to disappear in your hands — to get out of the way — so you can enjoy your reading.” Another cool example is Samsung’s Wall TV, which just blends into the background.

Some other cool examples of disappearing display technologies include:

  • Boogie Board, the pioneering reusable writing tablet using cholesteric liquid-crystal technology. The Boogie Board doesn’t go into screensaver mode like a tablet; it doesn’t flicker or distract when you pause your writing. Examples of ePaper single-purpose writing tablets also fit this description.
  • Microsoft’s Surface tabletop becomes the table and could be used to place food dishes when you’re done ordering or paying in the restaurant.
  • The world’s thinnest watch is an example of a shrinking display.
  • Kuori Oy’s Yeti Tablet causes both the display and technology to disappear for senior citizens and kids with learning disabilities.
  • Electronic shelf tags that look like printed labels. They don’t look out of place like a monitor or TV in the grocery store — they “disappear” into the shelf.
  • Noctiluca is an enabling OLED display lampshade that causes the “bulb” to disappear or the entire lamp stand to disappear.
  • Digital signage that looks indistinguishable from paper posters.

And don’t ask me ‘how’ bout them scrolls? ” Those disappeared long before any electronic display was invented. So fuhgeddabouditthat is ancient history.

Now, without sounding too out-of-this-world, I’d like to take a dive into where I see disappearing display technology going in the not-too-distant future:

Transparent displays

Transparent displays replace building and shop windows or a car’s sunroof. These displays will have sparse transistors, on a very thin sheet of plastic-like film, powering Mini or MicroLEDs. SmartKem is already making such a film using organic thin-film transistors (OTFTs).

For example, your “TV” becomes transparent. When you’re finished watching a movie, the screen becomes your window; the display disappears. In other words, you can see through the display. Also, think of your car’s roof as a screen. Imagine if I parked my car and pushed a button and my seat reclined and the roof became a screen. We could literally build such a prototype today. Just look at what NBC’s studio did during the Beijing 2022 Games using MiniLED displays — they brought the ski slopes into their studio.

Augmented-reality (AR) glasses

Imagine wearing a pair of glasses that could collect and display data, and, for example, alerts you that a colleague is walking into the room and informs you that you owe her money from a Super Bowl bet. The display disappears into the glasses and doesn’t impair your vision like, let’s say, virtual-reality (VR) glasses. eMagin is already building 10,000 cd / m2 bright OLED microdisplays that disappear into AR glasses.

Large color-changing ePaper displays

Have you seen BMW’s color-changing car wrapped in ePaper? Imagine using this E Ink display technology on military aircraft that disappear into the sky. The possibilities are endless.

NFTs and artwork disappearing displays

Ok, you paid an insane amount of money to purchase an NFT. How will you show it off? What if you had a display that “disappears” into the wall as art? Check out what Canvia is doing and you’ll get the “picture.” Omniply is making sticker electronics that might allow you to peel off the display and stick it elsewhere.

Digital “bricks”

In the future, I see more buildings with blocks of displays on the facade rather than traditional bricks that might resemble this outdoor LED display on the Gold House. X Display Corp. could enable it inside the building.

Holographic display

Let’s go back to Star Wars for a minute, where holograms were a hallmark. This includes the famous scene where R2D2 projects Princess Leia, who pleads, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” Now envision holographic displays projecting 3D images that could have useful application in several industries, such as healthcare, entertainment, and auto. Looking Glass Factory is already headed in that direction with 3D holographic displays.

Do some of these ideas sound a bit far-fetched? If so, that’s the point. Wild ideas often lead to breakthrough innovations. As George Lucas said, “Dreams are extremely important. You can’t do it unless you imagine it. ” Or, if you’re more of a Star Trek fan, creator Gene Roddenberry said it best, “It isn’t all over; everything has not been invented; the human adventure is just beginning. ”

I expect customers to demand “disappearing displays” as a feature in most applications where the display isn’t ON all the time. I love electronic displays of every kind, but they must disappear when we’re done viewing them. See if you can discover new disappearing displays at SID’s DisplayWeek 2022 in Silicon Valley during the month of May.

Keep dreaming and stay inspired friends.

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