- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

Want a computer screen you can roll up and, say, carry on trips in a small tube? Or a roll-up television screen? A lot of companies are scrambling to be able to sell you one. Of course, first they have to get the technology working. But it seems to be coming.
Today's laptop computers, and other products such as the little screens on the backs of digital cameras, use liquid-crystal displays, or LCDs. They work well. They also cost a lot, use a lot of power and have an expensive way of breaking if you drop them. Being made on plates of glass, they do not roll up at all well.
They use a lot of power because the display itself does not emit light. It must be backlit, shining light through the translucent colored dots that make up the picture. This translates into reduced battery life, which can be a problem on a flight to Thailand.
An up-and-coming technology, being worked on hard by such folk as Kodak and Cambridge Display Technology in England, is called organic light-emitting diodes or OLED. This probably isn't the first phrase you would whisper to your significant other while watching the moon through the pines, but it solves a lot of problems with today's displays.
The basic idea is that when you run electricity through the right organic polymer, it glows. (A polymer is just a long string of molecules stuck together, like DNA. The word comes from the Greek root "poly," meaning many, and "mer," meaning part.)
If you make a screen covered with these compounds, and arrange circuitry to run a current through little dots of it under computer control, bingo, you get a picture. Since the dots glow, you don't need backlighting, which in ordinary laptops takes up about half the screen power used. It also reduces the number of components. There is an old engineering saying, "More parts, more break."
Further, the "viewing angle" for OLED screens is about 160 degrees. Ever notice how a laptop screen gets dark and ugly if you aren't right smack dab in front of it? An OLED screen doesn't. You can watch it from pretty much anywhere except edge-on.
A potentially really cute feature is that you can make big OLED screens on flexible plastic (or probably will be able to). The polymers can be deposited by a process resembling ink-jet printing, which offers to bring prices way down in volume production. People in the field have suggested that one day it will be possible to print screens on wallpaper so we could have cheap, huge screens on which to watch abysmal sitcoms.
This isn't blue-sky, dream-world stuff. OLEDs are already in use in things like cell phones and displays for electronics in automobiles.
David Fyfe, the chief executive of Cambridge Display Technology, thinks that by 2005 OLED displays will begin to replace today's LCDs (which are today replacing CRT, or cathode ray tubes.)
Why would anyone much care? Saving a few bucks on a laptop is nice, but not earth-shattering.
Right now, a laptop is a big, clunky object largely because of the screen and keyboard, which have to be large to be usable. The battery adds weight.
With a roll-up screen and keyboard (various technologies exist that might work for the latter), you could have a useful computer that you could carry, say, in an inside coat pocket. Very small disk drives of substantial capacity are readily available, as for example in gadgets that allow teenagers to listen to countless hours of awful music.
A genuinely small computer would sure beat lugging a laptop case through airports.
Given the continuing fall in the price of a given amount of computing power, very cheap and truly portable displays would come close to making computers into thruways. Not necessarily good for the computer manufacturer, but interesting.

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