Business / Tech | ADVANCES IN PROGRESS

New technology has display designers thinking outside the rectangle

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

From smartphones, computers, TV sets to car navigation systems, almost every device’s display shape is rectangular.

But this stereotype is likely to change soon, as display-makers work to come up with unique designs, such as circular, curved, ultrathin and flexible.

Such displays, they say, are expected to be used more widely in auto interiors, for wearable devices and other internet-ready gadgets with the expansion of the internet of things.

“The need for higher-quality designs for displays has been growing,” Akio Takimoto, chief technology officer at Tokyo-based Japan Display Inc., said during a news conference last month.

Takimoto stressed that displays are not evolving merely in terms of their resolution and energy-saving functions, noting technologies are improving to change their shapes, such as making them edgeless, curved or flexible.

Japan Display, which was founded in 2012 by combining the display sections of Hitachi Ltd., Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp., unveiled at the news conference a 5.5-inch-thin plastic liquid-crystal display called Full Active Flex.

“By using plastic, the display has become flexible, which means it can be bent or folded,” said Takimoto.

Japan Display, which supplies LCD panels for Apple Inc.’s iPhones, said the 0.19-mm display has the potential to be used for smartphones as well as laptops and in-vehicle monitors.

Using plastic also offers extra advantages compared with existing glass-based LCDs, Japan Display President Shuji Aruga said at the same news conference.

For example, many people have broken their smartphone screens after accidently dropping their device. Plastic thin-film displays, however, won’t crack, Aruga pointed out.

Laptops can be considerably lighter with the plastic displays, making it easier for users to carry them around, he added.

Flexible LCDs can also be used to produce stylish wearable devices, such as those that can be wrapped around a wrist.

Japan Display said it aims to mass produce flexible displays in 2018.

Looking at global markets, overseas manufacturers have already launched products using unconventional displays.

South Korea’s Samsung Electronics has been selling smartphones with a curved-screen edge, known as the Galaxy Edge series, while LG, also of South Korea, has produced TV sets with curved screens.

Some analysts said that uniquely shaped displays are likely to make their debuts in the coming years.

It has been a trend in the past several years for display makers to create bigger and thinner smartphone or TV panels, but “I think that trend has kind of reached its limit,” said Hiroshi Sakai, an analyst at SMBC Friend Research Center.

Sakai said as a result manufacturers are developing displays that can be attached to devices or imbedded in different home electronics or outdoor spaces, to cultivate new markets.

Sharp Corp. is also seeing business opportunities with the evolution of displays.

The Osaka-based LCD manufacturer came up with Free-Form Displays, which are literally LCDs that can be cut into any shape.

As smartphones increase in use, their display sizes and resolutions have been improving, becoming larger and clearer.

However, “when we thought about smartphones in terms of design and portability, we were discussing if the display’s shape should be fixed to a rectangular shape,” said Koji Fujiwara, director of technology planning at Sharp’s display unit.

Sharp has developed rounded and curved displays, which the firm said can be used for various products.

Fujiwara said auto interiors can easily accommodate Free-Form Displays, as car designers have said rectangular displays are no longer fashionable.

“They have been asking us whether we can somehow solve that issue,” he said.

Fujiwara said by freely changing the shape of displays, it has become possible to come up with a display that matches a curved center console.

Allowing Sharp to produce displays with unique shapes is possible as a result of a technology that allows it to locate circuits more flexibly.

Normally circuits are located at the edge of LCDs, such as within a frame. But Sharp managed to spread the circuits inwardly under the screen, doing away with the need for a pronounced edge.

In the coming years, more home electronics, including refrigerators and audio devices, are expected to be connected to the internet.

Fujiwa said it will mean that the products will need to be equipped with displays, including Free-Form Displays, which can be made into a round shape of about 3 inches, for example, to give greater freedom in designing more fashionable products.

Sharp said it expects to see products with Free-Form Displays debut sometime this year.

This monthly feature, appearing on the second Monday or the second Tuesday when Monday is a press holiday, looks at technologies still under development or new to the market.