Roll-Up the TV

A 50″ TV takes up a lot of space, no matter what technology you use. And they get pretty heavy; a plasma panel that size can weigh 100 pounds or more.

Imagine an HDTV that disappears when you’re not watching it. It can be done. Instead of using glass substrates to create the panels, you can use plastic that is thin and flexible. In theory at least, you could then roll it up like a window shade when not in use, and then pull it down when you want to watch TV.

The US Display Consortium holds its annual conference about flexible displays next month in Phoenix, Arizona, which should provide a good glimpse into how we’re progressing toward the goal of a roll-up TV.

One problem is that the current technologies don’t lend themselves well to flexible displays. Plasma and LCD are the leaders, but they need to maintain a cell structure between two substrates. If you’ve ever tried to roll up a sheet of corrugated cardboard “against the grain” then you have experienced why this will be so difficult for these technologies. There are others in development, however, that hold promise. One of the leaders is organic light-emitting di0des — OLEDs — which emit light like a plasma screen, but only need a single substrate. And some companies have already demonstrated the ability to manufacture OLED panels using ink jet technology to spray the chemicals in place. Another similar technology is Surface Emitting Display — SED — developed by Canon and Toshiba and on display earlier this month at CES in Las Vegas. It’s no coincidence that Canon has ink jet technology, which was used from the start to create these panels. Both of these technologies are improbably thin, and should work fine on plastic film substrates.

Another problem is making the electrical connections on the panels. The materials used on glass panels for LCDs and plasma won’t work, but a lot of work is being done on creating “plastic” semiconductors and electrical connections that could also be “sprayed” to create a panel.

At CES, Philips demonstrated a roll-up display; it was small and used “bistable” display technology that does not draw much power but is too slow for TV images. All the same, it was an impressive display. A roll-up TV still is probably at least five years away, but a lot of companies — big and little — are putting a lot of time and money into developing the technology needed to make them a reality.