Imagine sitting down to your computer and seeing thin, plastic colour displays on either side of your monitor, showing high-resolution text pages you can refer to and print from. On the wall next to you is another large display on which you can show colleagues a power point presentation, or display family photos and notes.
This is just one vision of the future that Hewlett-Packard (HP) hopes to make possible with research into large, lower-cost displays. HP Labs in Bristol, England, has been working on developing a high-resolution paper-like display technology using plastic instead of glass for applications such as electronic books, magazines and posters, as well as a whole new range of products that might be made possible, such as electronic white boards.
HP researchers showed off a prototype using the new display technology at the National Gallery in London on Monday, saying it was the first step in breaking out of the 1,000 pixel by 1,000 pixel display barrier through which we see much of the electronic world.
"We have a thousand times more disc space and a thousand times more computer power but we're still looking through a little display window that's essentially the same as it was 10 years ago," said Adrian Geisow, manager of displays research at HP Labs.
While the liquid crystal display (LCD) prototype on show was small - just 3 cms by 4cms - it could display 125 colors and featured a "bistable" passive matrix, meaning that the researchers could build displays with as many pixels as they desired.
The fingernail-thin prototype displayed clear images from the Gallery's famous collection, and the researchers were confident that they could scale the technology to much larger displays. More developed plans for using the display technology are expected in about three years after more work has been done, the researchers said.
"We think this is a substantial milestone for large, low-cost, quality displays," said Huw Robson, manager of the digital media department and HP Labs.
Once scaled to around 43cm by 58cm, or about the size of a sheet of A2 paper, the researchers expect the displays to be about five times cheaper than today's glass LCD displays. "We've done cost modelling to suggest that this kind of savings is reasonable," Geisow said.
The source of the researchers' enthusiasm is not just the size and potential cost of the displays, but that they have created a whole new process for making them which employs a print-like process on plastic. The manufacturing process is much more simple and affordable than making a glass LCD display using photolithography, they said, which requires a process much like film developing on a substrate to achieve a pattern for displaying images. What's more, the technology allows for 200 or more ppi (pixels per inch), giving images a resolution normally confined to paper. That's why the technology is suited for art and text, the researchers said.
"This technology is targeted at print and paper-like applications," Geisow said, noting that none of the current commercial display technologies compete well with paper when it comes to presenting information in the way that books, magazines and posters do. "With this technology we think we've opened the door for whole new possibilities."
While commercial plans for the technology are several years away, the research fits squarely with HP's strength in the printing market.
"We are always looking to research new areas of our market we can move into," Robson said.