How will our relationship with digital displays change when they can show a fixed image almost indefinitely in low power mode and survive autonomously for weeks at a time in the mobile environment without charging?
Displays are currently the largest consumers of power in a mobile device. As a result, their mode of operation is sporadic: they flash on to notify users of an event and then blink off into darkness just as suddenly. This creates a usage pattern built around demands on user attention. The display becomes a limited window of opportunity, constrained by the configured power management and time out settings.
Qualcomm’s Mirasol panels hold the prospect of a redefined relationship between user and display. The technology captures reflected light between two mirrored layers, where a micro electro mechanical system (MEMS) processes it at the right wavelength to reflect a particular colour for each individual pixel. The displays run for weeks without a recharge and are visible in direct sunlight.
Jesse Burke of Qualcomm demonstrated the technology to me and there is a unique quality to the image reproduction. It is not the pin sharp, light emitting clarity of the 720p panels appearing on the latest smartphones. Instead it has a distinct visual flavour, almost like an old poster or a lithographed book. Video clips display remarkably well and the animation of games was also smooth and clear. As a visual experience I found it strangely pleasing to the eye, inexplicably more relaxing than the intensity and saturated colours we’ve become used to.
These intangible characteristics will play a significant role in its adoption or rejection by end users.
The technology raises the possibility of low power screens which await the user’s attention or remain fixed on a specific item with almost zero power consumption. Nokia’s Sleeping Screen and BERG’s experimental work with Dentsu are examples of how companies have already started to explore the life of displays when they are not the specific focus of user attention.
It is early days for Mirasol. A few e-reader products are shipping with the displays, but Qualcomm is investing about a billion dollars to build a commercial-scale fabrication plant which will enable it to ramp up production to mass market volumes. Initially this will be focused on the long hanging fruit of traditional mobile display form factors: phone, reader and tablet panels. However, I think the long-term potential is for a much wider range of display sizes, from tiny sub-displays for use in retail environments to poster-sized screens for public spaces.