On Display: The Latest in Mobile Phone Screen Technology

By  Arielle Emmett & Susan Nunziata — April 01, 2008

The prototype for wireless phones today appears to be the magic wand:  sleek, sexy, unbelievably multitasking, all-in-one, at your service. Oh, and did we mention cheap? Among the recent and emerging trends in mobile phone display design are:

Increased screen size and resolution (most displays are now using up to 2 megapixels) to deliver rich multimedia content;

  • Touchscreens to enable ease of use;
  • Technologies to preserve battery life;
  • Tiny projectors to facilitate shared viewing.
Just Looking For Some Touch
It's impossible to discuss display technologies without referencing the Apple iPhone. Although touchscreens per se are not new, especially to enterprise customers, the marketing juggernaut behind the iPhone has ratcheted up consumer awareness of the graphic user interface (GUI) possibilities offered by this type of display technology.

Much to the dismay of some I.T. professionals concerned about security and the ability to run enterprise applications, Apple's multitasking, sleekly iconic iPhone, available from AT&T, already appeals to an extraordinarily wide range of business users.

With its virtual touch keypad and zoom-in aerial mapping features, a 3.5-inch screen and colorful, clearly marked icons, iPhone sets the bar high for ease-of-use. The display toggles automatically between landscape and portrait views with a flick of the wrist. The phone's multi-touch interface enables easy typing and touching even for those whose fingers aren't as thin as their teenaged daughter's.

On the heels of making its software developers toolkit available to third-party developers, Apple announced several iPhone upgrades in March aimed at corporate users. These include Microsoft's ActiveSync technology to speed the delivery of email to the iPhone for users of Microsoft's Exchange corporate email service. In June, new software will aim to improve security and enable corporate I.T. departments to control the devices. The Wall Street Journal reports that with a 28% market share, the iPhone is the No. 2 selling smartphone in the U.S. after BlackBerry.

"If Apple is aligning its SDK so that more enterprise applications can be created for the iPhone, the move could erode the BlackBerry marketplace," says Barbara Bickham, CEO of Techgenii, a Los Angeles, Calif.-based mobile technology and entertainment consultancy. "The iPhone is slick and new and cool," and has crossover appeal to both consumers and the enterprise crowd, she says. But will enterprises view it as a business device? Only if Apple creates the security and management features corporate customers expect.

Also at issue, says Bickham, is the fact that the iPhone is marketed exclusively through AT&T instead of being available in all carrier channels. That choice could delay its widespread adoption by corporations already tied into contracts with other wireless carriers, she says.

Nonetheless, in terms of screen design and user interface, "The iPhone changes the [wireless] game," says Iain Gilliot, founder of IGR Inc., a marketing strategy and research company specializing in mobile business. Gilliot says his SMS usage has skyrocketed since he's tried the iPhone simply because it's easier for him to type on the virtual keyboard than a real (albeit miniaturized) one.
Another recent product attracting attention among enterprise users is the HTC Touch. This Windows Mobile 6 smartphone was developed for the American market by a Taiwanese company and is available from Alltel and Sprint. The phone combines a crystal-clear, high resolution and multidimensional touch display with a unique finger-sweeping GUI called "TouchFLO."

"Paint" your index finger across the touchscreen in a curve left to right, and a "side" of the cube pops up showing options such as email, SMS/MMS, Internet Explorer, tasks, a Comm Manager (providing access to Bluetooth and other options) and calendar. Sweep again, and the phone's GUI shows the cube revolving to land on a series of icons for ringtones, games, office PC syncing and "shared apps," among others. Another sweep, and you see a series of head-shaped icons which represent people you can add to your list of contacts. A final spin reveals options for downloading music, photos and videos.

Battery-Saving Solutions
Samsung has taken a different approach than other touchscreen technologies by integrating the touch unit within the LCD's glass cell, eliminating the need for a separate touchscreen overlay, and thus reducing demands on battery power.

"There's a big advantage to integrating the two [layers]," says Scott Birnbaum, a VP at Samsung LCD Business. "When you have a [touchscreen] overlay, it creates an air gap between the display and touch screen. When you think of the physics of light, which goes through an air gap because of the additional layer, optical performance normally decreases."

Samsung's new technology permits a thinner phone than other touchscreen devices and one that requires less battery power.

Also aimed at saving battery life is Qualcomm's Mirasol display technology, which uses an interferometer and ambient light reflected back to the human eye from a display's optical cavities, thus conserving power. Different wavelengths (colors) are reflected to the viewer based on the spacing (known as a "cell gap") of resident optical cavities for each subpixel.

Products incorporating Mirasol are in the works.  It's been adopted for two upcoming products from Foxlink Group of Taiwan - a GSM watch and a Bluetooth stereo headset. KT Freetel (KTF), one of Korea's largest carriers and the country's first WCDMA operator, chose Mirasol for a KTF SHOW Monitoring System. This uses 3G WCDMA to transmit live video from a SHOW camera device to a mobile.
"Because we can harvest ambient light, we don't require a back light," said Jim Cathey, VP for business development for Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Qualcomm, Inc., which produces Mirasol.

With very low power consumption (roughly 1 milliwatt in static mode) Mirasol displays have good visibility, even in bright sunlight.

"Exploded" View
New devices are also transforming our  military. For example, specialized head-mounted or helmet-mounted displays as small as .978 inches diagonally at Super XGA resolutions (1280 X 1024 pixels) are being used in Iraq. Kopin is one of the companies manufacturing such miniaturized, high-resolution displays for the military, wireless and other industries. 

The company also makes video eyeglass projection devices that enable users of handhelds to see the content of their screens in an "exploded" view.

"For example, with the iPOD, you hold your device in your palm, but with the eyewear, you get a magnification and see it as though you were watching a movie on a 50-inch TV at a distance of seven feet," explains Hong Choi, the chief technology officer for Kopin.

Other space-age solutions are on the horizon, including Nokia's shape-shifting Morph concept phone, a flexible device that makes use of nano-technology to take on a variety of iterations, from flat screen to wrist-watch.

Speaking at the Gartner Mobile & Wireless Summit in March, Nokia's Dr. Tero Ojanpera, EVP Entertainment & Communities, says that it would take five to seven years "before we could build a device like Morph." Meanwhile, the technology is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Microsoft Research and Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs are reportedly cooking up an equally futuristic display technology, the LucidTouch. This see-through screen actually consists of dual front and back touchscreens. The front display is controlled by thumbs, while the rest of your fingers control the back screen. The idea is to enable users to pinch, zoom and drag onscreen icons using mutiple fingers instead of just the one- or two-finger maneuvering that current touchscreens allow. It's reportedly expected to be ready for cellphones and other devices within five years.

When the smartphone's upgraded display screen still can't suffice, business users will soon be able to turn to "pico" or "nano" projectors. These are pocket-sized devices (most of them currently the size of a TV remote) allowing the projection of images of moderate size on walls or other surfaces. The devices either embed within a smartphone or PDA, or attach as an accessory to one. Pico projectors are ideal for road warriors who need to do business presentations on the fly or share multimedia content from their phones.
 
Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media in Norwalk, Conn., a market research and consulting firm for the display industry, says these tiny projection systems will roll out later this year.

"The projectors are designed to be portable, fit in your pocket, or eventually become embedded inside your cell phone, personal media player or notebook." 

Explay, based in Israel, is offering what it calls a "nano-projector" that fits in your palm. The projector uses proprietary laser beam projection technology and polymer optics to produce a high-resolution image that's 20 times larger than the mobile device itself. The image size ranges from 7 inches to 30 inches depending on the surface on which it's projected.

Another company, Microvision, is perfecting its line of "pico projection" displays that can be embedded in cell technology or attached as accessories. Microvision signed an OEM deal with Motorola in July 2007 to develop pico projector display solutions for mobile applications. 

"There's a feeding frenzy now because everyone thinks [the projectors] will be a killer product," Chinnock says.


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