Commercial production of large format flexible displays coming soon?

When will large-format flexible displays be commercial reality? And what could you do with them? Tim Kridel asked vendors and potential users.

After years of speculation and anticipation, foldable smartphones are finally commercial products, starting with the Huawei Mate X and the Samsung Galaxy Fold. Do they mean large-format flexible displays are just around the corner?

There are a few reasons to think so. One is OLED Falls [pictured right], a giant display that wrappedOLED Fall4 around the main entrance of LG’s booth at ISE 2019. Rather than a single giant display, OLED Falls consisted of 88 Open Frame OLED displays that curve up to 1,000R. But it’s still a noteworthy milestone, partly because Open Frame OLED is now in its second generation. 

“It features advanced innovations that are vital to its application on a wider scale,” says Nasser Malik, LG marketing manager for IT solutions. “This has been pivotal in how it has been taken up by designers, integrators and brands and applied in a number of verticals. 

“The ability of the 55EF5E model to be reshaped has made it easier to install, as it can be shaped in convex and concave formations onsite. The OLED Falls showcased at ISE was a great example of what can be achieved with large format flexible displays and seeing it in action has already led to some ambitious projects in the pipeline, which will take creativity with displays to a new level.” 

Scaling flexibility

Flexible displays have been in several vendors’ R&D labs for a very long time. The two biggest challenges are figuring out how to manufacture them in volume and designing them so they’re durable enough to hold up in everyday use.

“It’s only relatively recently that they’ve started to overcome some of those issues,” says Paul Gagnon, IHS Markit executive director and technology fellow. “The manufacturing scale is still a big problem. That’s part of the reason why these displays are so extraordinarily expensive: The manufacturing yields on them are very poor.” 

Premium smartphones have used flexible displays for years because they’re less likely to crack, but their flexibility is limited: nothing like the projector screen contortions that most people think of when they hear “flexible display”.

“Having screens on actuators so they flex in real time with the content—that would be amazing.”

“While [flexible displays] can be made out of both LCD and OLED, they really don’t work well on LCD,” Gagnon says. “You really need to use OLED processes.”

OLED is thin as a display structure. As an emissive display, there’s no need for a backlight, colour filter and other things that make a display thicker and thus less able to bend. Corning can make glass that’s really thin to the point of being flexible, but the challenge is also making it durable enough to be flexed and unflexed repeatedly. 

To be really flexible, TV-size OLED displays would need to use a plastic substrate, which is difficult to manufacture with. “So all of the OLEDs used in large-format displays are made out of glass,” Gagnon says. 

At CES 2019, LG announced that it will start offering a rollable OLED TV by the end of this year. It didn’t specify how tightly it will roll up, but Gagnon thinks the radius will be somewhere between 8 and 12 inches. A foldable smartphone costs about €2,000 to €2,299, depending on the model, which suggests that the rollable TV will carry an equally hefty premium.

“That model is 65 inches,” Gagnon says. “We think it will be priced somewhere close to $20,000 (approximately €18,000). By comparison, a 65-in high-end OLED [TV] is about $5,000.” 

One reason for the price premium is all of the R&D work that goes into creating a supporting structure to ensure precise rolling and unrolling, as well durability. So for now, this type of product will be aimed at the ultra-premium consumer market rather than, say, digital signage.

“I’m not sure there are too many companies willing to invest what’s probably a 10X cost difference against a normal display just for the wow factor,” Gagnon says.

Throwing a curve

But suppose all of these hardware and cost challenges were solved. What could you do with a large-format flexible display that you can’t do with their rigid counterparts or with alternatives such as projectors? 

One possible application is digital signage that wraps around building columns in convention centres, airports and casinos the way that banners and posters currently are. People aren’t used to seeing video on columns, so passers-by might be wowed enough to stop and watch.

“These formats will add interest and standout in a crowded outdoor advertising space,” says Ric Albert, creative director at Grand Visual, a creative services company focused on the digital-out-of-home (DOOH) market. “It’s easy to see how flexible displays will become the landmark DOOH sites of the future. 

“By expanding the potential to place screens in areas otherwise unattainable, we are maximising the opportunity for DOOH to reach new audiences and break the mould of our current inventory. Imagine turning some of the 360-degree vinyl wraps on London Underground into screens rather than printed material for a truly immersive visual experience.”

OLED Falls also hints at how flexible displays could enable pro AV to expand its nascent architectural role.

olly taylor headshot“There are already buildings clad in LED walls,” says Olly Taylor [pictured left], British Music Experience technical manager. “But I can well imagine that architects will begin to specify flexible OLED panels to be used externally in order to create impact or perhaps even to allow a building to blend in to a changing environment as the day progresses.

“I think we’re getting closer to the cliché of being able to change the colour and décor of a room to suit one’s mood. I’m quite sure we will see the technique heavily utilised in commercial settings, especially retail. I think there is a massive benefit in considering the impact of using flexible displays solely as a light source.”

Others agree about the architectural impact and opportunities.

“Flexible displays will be most useful for architectural applications where the display is factored into the interior design of a space and the application is immersive and a big statement for the space,” says Paul Childerhouse, group director at Pioneer Group. “The vertical applications would be varied, but customers with a high level of vision from a creative standpoint. Hotels, malls and atriums particularly would be great places to begin to see curved and architecturally driven display design.”

More flexibility—beyond the waves of OLED Falls—would enable more possibilities.

“If there was even more flexibility within these products, we’d start to work more organically with the environments they are being integrated into, formulating the shape of the architecture,” Childerhouse says. “Working with architectural and interior design teams from an earlier stage would enable us to integrate the technology with the curvatures of the building, resulting in the display becoming immersed into the design concept as opposed to current applications, which tend to be experiential or retrofitted to current buildings.”

Flexible displays could be a particularly good fit for live entertainment venues and visitor attractions.

“Once the technology is available in larger formats, it will certainly be used as part of stage sets, etc. with infinity wall-like ability to transform surroundings,” Taylor says. “I’m quite sure this is where we’ll see the most creative use of the technology, but it is essentially a continuation of current LED wall technology that is in widespread use throughout the live entertainment industry. 

“The use of projection and projection mapping is widespread within visitor attractions, but often certain factors such as brightness, cost of ownership and scale can make this impractical. As the cost of flexible display technology comes down, we’re very likely to see this technology replace certain applications previously reserved only for projection mapping, particularly once the transparent and flexible OLED technology is combined.” 

Thinking outside the box

To be viable for cylindrical applications, flexible displays have to overcome the cost and other shortcomings of curved LED panels or projectors. 

Mike Ross headshot“The cost of getting a high-fidelity display at a reasonable cost often got them axed from project budgets from the start,” says Mike Ross [pictured left], director of BlueBox Technology Solutions, a 2019 InAVation Awards finalist. “Projection on columns often led to complex projector set-ups to not throw away loads of pixels. That meant a higher number of projectors and blending systems, which always looked good on opening but required lots of maintenance as time went on to keep the fidelity of the system.”

Additional opportunities arise if the flexibility is dynamic.

“Having screens on actuators so they flex in real time with the content—that would be amazing,” Ross says. “Additionally, they can be used in more hard-to-reach places where one wants to display content: those small (or large) corners, areas with lots of columns making complex projection difficult.

“Having done a project on a large old ship, finding the right place to put projectors inside the ship to tell stories proved limiting. Being able to place these flexible screens in some of these unique and challenging spaces opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.”

Building columns are just one example of unusual locations that flexible displays will enable. 

“What’s exciting about the flexible screens now in the making is that these screens are malleable and will open up the potential locations and uses for screens in the public space,” Albert says. “On a basic level, convex screens can extend the viewing arc up to 360-degrees, whilst concave screens can wrap around the audience providing a more immersive viewing experience.” 

“I’ve not used too many of them to date, but I did work on a project in retail, and people were blown away by the non-traditional screens that curved above their heads as they walked through the shops,” Ross says. “That’s something they’ll always have going for them: a sense of wonder as it’s not something your everyday person would just have in their house.”

“Flexible displays allow media owners the opportunity to place screens on curved structures, maximising the size and shape potential of each location,” Albert says. “Where screens can blend in with the environment and it feels natural, organic and makes sense. Where flexibility is not a gimmick, but simply, the best shape and viewing experience for the location.”

AV pros, advertising agencies and others will have to come up with fresh approaches to content and design. 

“How do we get the creative to work, on a cylindrical wrap where you can't see all of the content from any one angle?” Albert says. “At current technology levels it raises the question, does this work better than a two-sided LCD panel? Brands will always veer towards the safer option unless there is a real reason for its use.”

Vendors also have their work cut out—and not just with the displays themselves. 

“Content on huge scale installations and being able to effectively drive hundreds of HD or UHD displays has been one of the elements which has held back projects in order to take flexible displays to the next level,” says LG’s Malik. “However, we are seeing that slowly change as content, digital infrastructure and marketing join forces to create visionary creative installations.”

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