In Pictures: 9 futuristic display technologies

Fast-moving tech is redefining the electronic display as screens get bigger, better, and bendier

  • 9 far-out future display technologies

    For decades, there was exactly one way to look at electronically displayed text and images: the cathode ray tube. This hardworking, stalwart technology was the display of choice for everything, from radar systems in the 1940s all the way to desktop PCs in the 1990s, with millions of heavy, fragile cabinet TVs in between. As computing has moved out of the office, into the home, and onto the streets, so has display technology. Here we look at emerging initiatives for the traditional workstation, as well as potential developments in screen tech for mobile, gaming, and outdoor environments. Consider this less a comprehensive overview of display technology -- entire segments of the industry are dedicated to that -- than a leisurely scroll through some of the more far-out displays the future may hold.
  • OLED

    OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes) are all the rage these days in high-end big-screen TVs, and they've been in circulation for years in smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. As traditional workstation monitors go, OLED displays can produce incredibly high-resolution images on screens that are thinner and more energy-efficient than anything that's come before. OLED uses various organic materials that glow a particular color when an electric current is introduced. What's more, individual pixels can be shut off completely for absolute black and unprecedented contrast. All major display manufacturers are researching OLED technology, and it's expected to be a driving force in TVs, monitors, and handheld displays for the next several years.
  • Bendy displays

    One of the many advantages of OLEDs is the technology's (literal) flexibility. So-called bendy screens are popping up in OLED designs both big and small. The addition of slight curves and wraparound edges in certain types of displays can improve not only image quality, but also the size and durability of the screen. Then there are the designs that get really bent. Last year, LG Display unveiled an 18-inch OLED panel so flexible that it can be rolled up like a newspaper -- to a diameter of three centimeters -- without losing image quality. Major manufacturers like LG and Samsung are continuing to research and develop flexible displays for smartphones, tablets, monitors, and big honking TVs.
  • Foldable smartphone

    OLED isn't the only display technology out there, of course. With electronic screens of all sorts becoming ubiquitous in modern life, manufacturers have spent years exploring intriguingly named technologies, both new and old: Quantum dot! Ferro liquid! Laser phosphor! One of the oldest alternative display technologies -- electrophoretic display or "e-paper" -- goes back several decades. Remember those wide-eyed predictions in the early 1990s that we would soon have flexible plastic online newspapers? That was e-paper, and it's still around. Last year, Canada's Human Media Lab debuted a variation on the bendy display with a prototype smartphone that unfurls like a foldout map. As you can see from the photo, the prototype is a bit clunky for now, but the idea is that you could someday unfold your smartphone into a TV-size display.
  • Haptic touchscreens

    Possibly the single most significant change in display technology over the past few years has been the dizzying ascent of touchscreens, thanks largely to the invasion of smartphones and tablets. It's weird to think that even as recently as 10 years ago, touchscreens were largely relegated to museum kiosks and ATM transactions. Nowadays, touchscreens are so commonplace they've even spun off weird accessory markets. What's next for touchscreen tech? How about a touchscreen that touches you back. Companies like Senseg are working in the field of haptic touchscreens, which provide tactile feedback to your finger as you scroll over items onscreen. You can feel buttons and even relative textures -- rough versus smooth, say -- by way of ultra-low electrical currents that approximate sensation on the skin.
  • Oculus Rift

    No discussion of future display technology would be complete -- or at least not as fun -- without mention of everyone's favorite imminent virtual reality revolution, the Oculus Rift. A 3D head-mounted display with motion tracking, Oculus Rift was initially developed by the startup Oculus VR, which was famously purchased by Facebook in 2014 for roughly $10 bajillion in cash and stocks. While no official release date has been announced, the consumer version of Oculus Rift is expected to finally hit shelves later this year. Technical specs for the commercial version aren't known yet, but recent hands-on reviews from CES 2015 divulge some interesting details. The idea of a head-mounted VR display isn't new, nor will Oculus Rift go unchallenged: Sony's Project Morpheus is coming up fast. Both systems are aimed primarily at the gaming world for now, but head-mounted VR displays have potential applications in dozens of commercial areas, from architecture and design to medicine and education.
  • Unreal

    Speaking of virtual reality, let's take a quick diversion, if we might, behind the hardware of future display tech and into the realm of graphics. One of the most startling viral videos of the year so far was posted a few weeks back with this virtual tour of a Paris apartment using the upcoming Unreal Engine 4. It kind of has to be seen to be believed. The Unreal Engine is a longtime heavyweight in the realm of video games, but paired with head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift, the potential for true VR applications could ripple out into all sorts of industries. Such an exponential leap in realism and immersion represents a genuine sea change in what we think of as "the screen."
  • Outdoor 3D screens

    Then there are the really big ideas in emerging display technology -- as in literally big. In January, researchers at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria unveiled details on a display system for ginormous 3D billboards, jumbotron screens, and outdoor digital signage. By way of 3D pixels ("Trixels"), the system projects images that shift and move when viewed at different angles, similar to 2D holograms that appear three-dimensional. The system also employs a combination of mirrors and lasers to produce angular resolution so fine that the left eye is presented a different picture than the right, producing a 3D image without the need for 3D glasses. The technology is still in early development, however. Resolution on the current prototype is, well, modest -- five pixels by three pixels. (The image above is concept art.)
  • Virtual retinal display

    From really, really big we go to really, really small. The VRD (virtual retinal display) is a developing technology that does away with the idea of the electronic screen altogether. Instead, images are drawn directly onto the viewer's retina by way of specially focused lasers and LEDs. The process is similar to how a raster image is drawn on the screens of old cathode ray tube displays. The technology is different from those used in head-mounted displays like Oculus Rift or even Google Glass, which basically produce virtual images using projection systems. The perception of the virtual image varies -- Google Glass, for instance, produces an image that's the equivalent of viewing a 25-inch monitor from about eight feet away. With VRDs, the image only exists in the eyeball itself. The Glyph VRD headset system, pictured above, is currently in development after a successful Kickstarter campaign last year.
  • Holographic display For a generation raised on science fiction movies, the future display technology we all want to see is the freestanding holographic image -- think Captain Picard on the holodeck, or Princess Leia telling Obi Wan that he is indeed her only hope. Be assured that research teams around the planet are working on the concept, with promising recent news. Meanwhile, Microsoft's new HoloLens initiative for Windows 10 looks like an augmented reality approximation, but the technology for genuine freestanding holograms -- generated in midair, with no projection surface -- is still a long way off. Then again, who knows? The future of display technology is in constant flux -- it's one of the fastest-moving industries on the planet. It was only a few years ago that we were all lugging around CRT monitors and TVs, and now we're anticipating haptic touchscreens and retinal displays. Is it too much to hope for a 12-inch Princess Leia hologram on our desks next year? I submit that it is not.
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