With Panasonic India announcing a new series of televisions sporting the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays and Samsung, internationally, certifying unbreakable or flexible OLED displays, the display panel market is abuzz on the OLED bandwagon. For starters, OLED screens have been around for a while now, mostly on high-end phones. But the technology has exploded (not literally, of course!) in recent years especially after consumers started demanding more in terms of visual display and companies such as Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic started investing big into OLED research.

What is it?

In OLED panels, an organic (carbon) film sits between two conductors and they emit light when electrically charged. This happens in every pixel of the display and doesn’t require a backlight to function, like in LCD and LED displays. OLED requires less energy than LCD or LED. More importantly, these organic pixels are self-emissive. This means they illuminate on their own so can go super black when they are not charged. This is helpful in displaying colours more vividly.

In fact, the idea of OLED isn’t new. Its origins date back to France in the 1950s where scientists at the Nancy-Université discovered electroluminescence in organic materials. But yes, it took a lot of time for companies to develop displays that would illuminate organic materials when electricity is passed through them. There are a lot of claimants for the first OLED displays as several companies were experimenting with the same. The consensus is that in 1987, two physical chemists at Eastman Kodak built the first “practical” OLED device.

It took many years for companies to really understand and exploit the potential of OLED displays and the industry had already taken a liking to the LCD, which essentially uses liquid crystal cells that reflect when in contact with electricity, and then the LED or light-emitting diode display. To cut to the chase, in 1998, Kodak-Sanyo (a joint-venture then) presented what they called the ‘Full-color Active Matrix Organic display’, a distant and a more relatable cousin of today’s OLEDs.

This posed a challenge to the LCD, especially after research and experience found that green organic LED showed high efficiency in rendering colours and visuals. In 2000, Taiwanese hardware maker Ritek decided to make OLED panels in bulk, followed by Toshiba, Sanyo, Samsung and LG. Early next year, Sony made the world’s largest full colour OLED. This 13-inch display had a resolution of 800x600 pixels, which is nothing by today’s standards, but was a big deal then. In 2003, Sony came up with a 24.2-inch OLED panel.

Picking up pace

Several companies, from Philips to Daewoo to Panasonic to Seiko tried their hand at developing and improving OLED displays. In two years, Samsung developed a 21-inch OLED that could be used in televisions. The company claimed that was the world’s largest of its kind. Very soon, OLED and its variant AMOLED started getting popular among cellphone makers. Even an Indian company, Samtel, had unravelled plans to produce OLED displays but didn’t go too far. In 2009, Google’s first Nexus, made by HTC, sported the OLED display, giving a fillip to the technology.

Still, there was no sign of proper OLED TVs, even though Sony had introduced its XEL-1 with a flat OLED panel. In August 2010, LG introduced a 31-inch 3D OLED TV prototype and soon released smaller-sized OLED TVs (15 inches) in Europe. Meanwhile Panasonic made impressive progress in white OLED and in 2012 joined hands with Sony to develop technology to manufacture OLED TV panels. The same year, LG and Samsung unveiled 55-inch OLED TVs and the market was slowly expanding thanks to many factors, including availability of video content that is super-rich (HD, Full HD, 4K and more).

Panasonic, whose OLEDs have just entered India, launched its OLED TV in September 2015, a year after it had decided to shut its loss-making plasma screen factory business. Samsung says its flexible OLED panel would make plastic displays popular as it gets rid of glass. It basically has a transparent plastic cover attached and this can mimic properties of glass while remaining flexible. This is expected to bring in a new wave in the OLED industry.

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