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Updated December 1, 2017 with minor corrections/editing
Late November through early January is “CES Announcement Season” where companies announce what they are going to be doing at CES. Its also the time of year went I start making my plans for what to see and who to meet at CES (and BTW, if you want to meet with me at CES 2018, please get in contact).
In addition to my usual CES planning, I have for some time now been doing a lot of investigative work in the area of (inorganic) Micro-LEDs (also known as Micro-iLEDs and µLED). So Samsung’s announcement of a 150″ Micro-LED TV caught my attention.
LEDinside had a good article explaining how Samsung’s QLED sales have been poor and they needed something to change the subject. Samsung price the QLED was about the same as LG’s OLEDs. While QLED could go brighter, it really was not necessary for typical home use and people love the blacks of OLED as well as other properties better. So in the premium TV market, QLED came in second = last in a two horse race. Samsung needed to change the subject.
Samsung’s 150″ TV at CES is a “prototype” and just about large technology company could using brute forced build today if cost were no object, at least for a one-off prototype. Simply slice up some moderately small LEDs and stick them on a large substrate with control circuits. Note, Sony had a Micro-LED 55″ 1080P 6 years ago at 2012 at CES. Samsung, Sony (CLEDIS brand), and NanoLumen have been making large Micro-LED displays for commercial use for some time now. Samsung even demonstrated a 10.3 meter (33.8 feet) wide movie theater Micro-LED display in Korea.
This may or may not be a step on the road to a production Micro-LED TV. It would have been more impressive/important if Samsung had showed a ~65″ TV (requiring about a 6X, in area, small pixels) that would be practical in a person’s home. In this case, bigger is not necessarily better as a 150″ TV (~11 feet wide by ~6 feet tall) would be hard to fit in most homes. And even with 4K resolution, you would want to be about 8 to 10 feet away to avoid seeing the the individual pixels.
So, Samsung’s CES 2018 announcement of a 150″ Micro-LED is a technical “so what?” The biggest impact of this announcement may be that it puts the words “Micro-LED” on the radar screen of the public at large. Micro-LEDs have the potential make almost all current display technologies look like Vacuum Tubes verses transistors (and the way vacuum tubes replaced electromechanical relays before them).
Large LED based signage and Jumbotrons have been around for many years, but these used relatively large LEDs with large circuitry driving them and need to be viewed from relatively far away or you will see individual pixels. Additionally the color control is generally not very good leading to a “cartoon look” to the colors. While there is not solid definition, what are called Micro-LEDs tend to start at sub 2-millimeter pixel pitch, but can go down to less than 10 micron which is a huge range.
Market analyst Yole of France in particular has been following Micro-LEDs (a link to their good overview slide-set on Micro-LEDs). The figure below is take from that presentation:
Micro-LEDs are not so much a single technology but a class of dozens of technologies that utilize inorganic (“normal”) LED technology (as opposed to organic based LEDs) for the light emitting device. The LEDs themselves could be made on traditional flat semiconductor wafers and then cut into tiny (micro) individual LEDs, use newer techniques such as nanowires, or could be grown on top of an integrated circuit (monolithic) or other substrate. Some are planning on using red, green, and blue native LEDs while others plan to use blue LEDs with some form of color conversion such as quantum dots or quantum wells.
The reason Micro-LEDs are such a hot topic is that inorganic LEDs have the technical high ground in terms of efficiency, switching speed, lifetime/durability/burn-in, brightness, color saturation, and light control. On paper at least, Micro-LED has all the technical advantages of OLED (such as great blacks) with non of the disadvantages. The problem today is the cost and reliability of manufacturing Micro-LEDs.
Micro-LED-info is a website that specifically follows Micro-LEDs. Market analyst Yole for France has been particularly following Micro-LEDs a good overview slide-set on Micro-LEDs. Yole has published forecasts for the Micro-LED market such as the “Aggressive scenario” below:
Yole does caution in their presentation that the technology is in the early stages and that there are some major obstacles to overcome.
My overall conclusion, not yet fully justified but one for which I am hardly alone, is that Micro-LEDs are going to eventually be truly disruptive technology to the display industry, and I don’t say this lightly. It may be hard to overstate the future importance of Micro-LEDs in the display industry.
They have the long term potential to replace almost every display technology used today from Movie Theaters to TVs, PC & Tablets, Smartphones and Watches, and all they way down to near to eye AR displays. And this is no secret to the likes of Apple, Google, Facebook/Oculus, Sony, and Samsung that are all making significant investments in Micro-LED.
In some cases, Micro-LEDs will be a simple replacement such in cell phones and TVs. In the case of Movie Theaters, it is a bit more radical in replacing projectors with flat screens. In the case of the some products, such as near to eye displays, they will have people thinking more radically in terms of how to leverage their unique optical capabilities.
Mico-LEDs are not going to be cost effective overnight. The conventional wisdom is that we will see the first widespread consumer use in smart-watches where the resolutions requirements are much lower (on the order of 200K pixels) and the pixel size is only moderately small. For a direct view device, such as a smart watch, the pixel sizes need to be on the order of 50 to 100 microns pitch, but for an AR type microdisplay the pixels need to be about 10X smaller in pitch and 100X smaller in area, a much bigger challenge.
After watches and maybe cell phones, TVs are likely to be next to use Micro-LEDs in premium model televisions. Interestingly with Micro-LEDs, the cost of manufacturing is likely to be more tide to the resolution than the display size. This could mean that say a 75″ or 80″ TV might only cost slightly more than a 65″ TV (rather than several times the cost which is typical today).
In many ways it is easier to predict what will happen than when. The general expectation is that we will see consumer smart watches in 2018 or 2019. I think we are at least 5 years away from seeing any significant volume in TVs/Monitors, but once it starts to happen the prices could fall quickly as it always seems to happen with TVs. Microdisplays (for near eye AR) will probably take longer, say 7 to 10 years as many more advances are required.
Typically people are optimistic in the short run and pessimistic in the long run about technology. So it may take some waiting to see the benefits of Micro-LEDs, but it does seem to be inevitable.