What Happened To OLED?


Some electronics industry observers may be wondering if OLED TVs should be lumped in with the flying car, the food synthesizer, and other technological no-shows. After the first OLED TV, Sony’s XEL-1, showed up in spring 2008, the cognoscenti assumed we’d see larger models by that fall, and OLED TVs in all shapes and sizes by Christmas 2009. But almost 2 years after the XEL-1 was first demonstrated, the $2,500, 11- inch set remains the only OLED TV ever to make it to market, despite countless teasers from Sony and other manufacturers about larger sets to come.

For a technology that some pundits predict will eventually take over the video display industry, this isn’t an impressive showing. And it has some people asking: Will OLED really make it in the home video market, or will it end up on the trash heap with other nonstarter display technologies like SED?

OLED, or organic light-emitting diode, offers tremendous advantages over existing display technologies such as LCD and plasma. Unlike with LCD, the pixels in an OLED display are self-illuminating — i.e., they emit their own light without the help of a backlight. Because OLED pixel arrays can be printed on thin substrates, an OLED panel is extraordinarily thin: The XEL-1’s screen assembly measures a mere 3 millimeters thick, about the same thickness as three stacked credit cards. The technology also works with flexible substrates, so screens could be made to curve or even roll up into a scroll. With its bright, vivid, high-contrast picture, OLED promises to match or exceed the video performance of any existing display technology. And the inherently low power consumption of LEDs promises to make OLED TVs among the most energy-efficient.

The wait for more OLED TVs may soon be over. Early this summer, LG announced that it would begin shipping a 15-inch OLED TV this December. Pricing for the new model had not been announced (expect to gulp when you read it), but the new set is slated to have a resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels, a nice step up from the XEL-1’s 960 x 540 resolution.

Still, that’s only 15 inches—a size that consumers who are spoiled by $349 32-inch LCD sets might consider inadequate, even for a kitchen TV. There are signs that bigger sets are on the way. LG Display’s CEO, Kwon Young-Soo, recently stated that LG plans to produce 30-inch OLED panels for TV sets in 2012. Samsung has shown a working prototype of a 40-inch panel, as well as a “production-ready” 31-inch OLED TV with full 1080p resolution. Sony, too, has shown larger screens. However, none of these manufacturers would share with us even a vague prediction as to when (or even if) these sets will actually appear in stores.

Before video enthusiasts start cursing manufacturers for the slow pace of OLED development, they should recall the case of LCD TVs. These sets first arrived in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that affordable big-screen models became available — and they now cost less than a good seat at an Eagles concert.

-- Brent Butterworth in the October 2009 Issue of S+V.

For more information on LED TVs check out our feature: "Guide To LED Technology".