Bangalore, September 5 2016: Television display technology has gone through five generations in the last 30 years. The fat Cathode Ray Tube-based sets were the only options when TV became an all-India thing in the 1980s.
At the turn of the century we got the first Plasma flat screens -- great to look at, but very heavy and power-guzzling. The LCD flat TVs which appeared around 2005, were almost as good -- image-wise-- and also lighter to carry and lighter on the purse. Then the industry coined another term: "LED TV" which was only the LCD screen, back-lit by a bank of light emitting diodes or LEDs.
Meanwhile the geniuses who sell TVs, confused us by throwing in acronyms like HD and UHD which were not new display technologies but only ways of defining how sharp the picture was, in other words high or ultra high definition.
The fifth generation of TV display technology has been around from 2013 -- but is widely available only this year. It is called OLED or Organic Light Emitting Diode. OLED TVs are different from the LED-lit LCD TVs in a basic way. While all of the pixels in an LCD TV screen are illuminated by an LED back light, each pixel in an OLED TV produces its own illumination. OLEDS are organic because they are made from carbon and hydrogen. OLED TV screens are organic thin films sandwiched between two conductors. When electrical current is applied, a bright light is emitted. Because they emit their own light, they do not require a backlight and are therefore much thinner than LED-LCD displays
We are already using OLED though we may not know it: Many recent smart phones -- OnePlus 3, Samsung Galaxy Note 7, Oppo F1 Plus and Asus ZenFone 3 -- all use OLED screens which make the phones thinner and lighter. One other property of OLEDS has been exploited by wearables like Asus ZenWatch and Samsung Gear -- they can be made flexible.
Square cm for cm, OLEDS have been costly to fabricate -- which is why not many TV makers are making OLED sets. But one company -- LG -- which pioneered and promoted the OLED TV 3 years ago, continues to put its money where its mouth is.
At its India manufacturing plant in Ranjangaon, near Pune, it is rolling out OLED TVs in large formats -- 55 inch and 65 inch -- for domestic market as well as for export. Possibly because they own a lot of OLED patents, LG is not too worried about the relative cost of large screen OLED versus LED TVs. In fact it has married its OLED TVs to two other technologies which promise to enhance the viewer experience: High Dynamic Range and Dolby Vision. Both of them essentially enhance how the screen displays a wide range of light conditions from full white to full black. The new E6 series from LG (55 inch and 65 inch models are currently in production) combines OLED, HDR and Dolby Vision to create a smart ( ie Net connected) Ultra HD display that is about as far as large display technology can go today. Such quality comes at a price. Expect to pay between Rs 2.5 lakhs to Rs 4 lakhs for large format OLED TVs.
And what of the future?
While the OLED TVs can be made extremely thin -- 4 mm typically -- they are still rigid. But the flexible nature of OLEDS has seen them tried out in many interesting situations:
PC screens that can be wrapped around your arm; a patient's case sheet that can be contoured to fit any part of the body, foldable refreshable newspapers -- and even a TV that you can roll up like a map, have been previewed at consumer shows this year.
The tipping point has come. Watch out for OLED applications that are limited only by imagination. Today you can book seats on commercial flights to outer space stations -- when that happens. Me? I'm placing an order for 2 metres of TV.