2017 iPhones may ditch traditional LCDs for a lot brighter, much more power-efficient OLED display technology. However, the OLED switch could be short-lived as Apple is said to be adopting emerging Micro-LED display panels. Micro-LED screens could debut on 2017 Apple Watch models.
Micro-LEDs range in size from one micron to one hundred microns. Skating to where the puck’s going to be, Apple in May 2014 bought Micro-LED developer LuxVue Technology, adding their talent to to its hardware innovations team. The iPhone maker also set up an R&D center in Taiwan to research Micro-LEDs.
Here’s a technology primer providing a layman’s overview of the current state of Micro-LED technology and how it could benefit Apple by helping its teams engineer devices that would rock longer-lasting batteries and have significantly brighter screens.
The benefits of Micro-LED panels
Micro LED technology provides the following benefits:
- Micro-LEDs could improve battery power by as much as 300 percent.
- Micro-LEDs eliminate the need for backlighting unlike traditional LCDs.
- Micro-LEDs allow for higher-resolution screens with improved color gamut than other display technologies.
- Micro-LEDs provide two to three times the brightness of their OLED counterparts under the same power consumption.
- Micro-LEDs require much less investment than traditional TFT LCD display panels to reach economies of scale.
- Micro-LED chips are so small that a five-inch 400-by-600 pixel smartphone panel requires nearly one million and a 4K TV panel about 50 million chips.
As Micro-LED technology is still in its infancy, initial R&D and production costs are higher than costs related to OLED/TFT development.
Who builds these Micro-LEDs?
Currently, both Apple and Samsung are secretly developing Micro-LEDs.
Realizing they cannot compete with major tech giants on their own, government-sponsored Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) is looking to organize 20+ Taiwanese firms into a consortium beginning November 2016.
The consortium includes Taiwan-based Micro-LED makers, LED material makers, integrated circuitry design firms, packaging and testing service providers, TFT-LCD panel makers and system product makers.
ITRI has been developing Micro-LED technology for a while now and is progressing toward small-volume trial production in early-2017.
Based on existing development and established supply chain of Micro-LEDs, the possibility of successful development of Micro-LEDs in terms of commercial applicability is about 50 percent, according to Electronic and Optoelectronic System Research Laboratories (EOSRL) general director Wu Chih-I.
Micro LEDs will be first applied to small-size displays like smartwatches, virtual reality or augmented reality devices. As production cost decreases over time, Micro-LEDs should make their way into smartphones, TVs and PCs.
Apple and LuxVue
Which brings us to LuxVue, a Micro-LED developer Apple acquired in 2014 and confirmed the purchase with a boilerplate statement saying, “We buy smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”
LuxVue has been stealthily working on low-power Micro-LED-based displays for consumer electronics. Last year, it announced a technical breakthrough in displays.
At the core of Micro-LED technology is mass transfer of small chips, which is currently challenged by balancing cost and yield rate. LuxVue’s breakthrough appears to revolve around using unique electrostatic adhesion for mass transfer of chips.
By contrast, other Micro-LED makers use vacuum pressure. As it stands, vacuum pressure is cheaper and simpler than LuxVue’s method, but has low yield rates.
Incorporated in 2009, LuxVue has its headquarters in Santa Clara, California. The firm was formerly known as Papierlos Corporation.
Its VP of Technology, Kapil Sakariya, worked at Apple from July 2006 until November 2011 as a Display Architect and iPhone Operations and Procurement Manager.
The firm received $43 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins, iD Ventures America and others on top of $18 million and $25.2 million it raised in 2013.
Most importantly, LuxVue was granted a bunch of patents related to commercialization of Micro-LEDs, which are now owned by Apple. These include four inventions providing methods for using a sapphire layer in a semiconductor device.
Interestingly enough, an Apple patent for a 3D camera system specifically mentions using a light source in the form of LEDs to transilluminate a transparency with optical radiation so as to project a pattern onto the object.
According to the patent abstract, the system “captures an image of the pattern that is projected onto the object” while a CPU “processes the image so as to reconstruct a three-dimensional map of the object.”
Even more interestingly, Apple’s patent for a 3D camera system credits as its inventor Kelly McGroddy, who was Director of LED Technology at LuxVue.
EETimes said in June 2015 that Micro-LEDs could be used for “direct projection displays” that would include augmented and virtual reality applications like a rumored VR/AR headset Apple’s been reportedly working on.
The article explained that Micro-LED displays would be ideally suited for wearable devices and VR/AR headsets due to their “low footprint, low power consumption, high-contrast ratio and ultra-high brightness.”
At 2013 Disrupt SF, KPCB partner John Doerr said LuxVue’s technology could improve battery power by a whopping 300 percent compared to the usual 1-2 percent improvements that we normally see in the industry.
Micro-LEDs could easily become “the biggest, the single most disruptive thing, the game changer” in the industry, said Doerr. “If you can find a way to double or triple the energy density, then you need less stuff to make it and it weighs less,” he explained.
OLED or Micro-LED iPhones?
So, will a future iPhone have a display based on OLED or Micro-LED technology?
If you ask Innolux CEO Wang Jyh-chau, OLEDs won’t replace LCDs as mainstream display technology anytime soon because OLED panels are still pricey and difficult to manufacture in volume compared to LCDs.
Wang thinks Apple will likely adopt OLEDs for 2017 iPhones for the sake of product differentiation, but is uncertain whether it will be on a long-term basis—especially when Apple is thought to be developing Micro-LEDs on its own.
It’s “too early to determine the prospect of Micro-LEDs,” he said.
According to Taiwan-based supply chain makers, Apple in April 2015 established a facility in northern Taiwan solely dedicated to researching Micro-LED technology.
Keep in mind that it’s unclear if Apple has completed its purchase of LuxVue.
If not, chances are future Apple devices may gradually switch from the current power-hungry LCD panels to the more energy-efficient OLED or AMOLED screens. Apple currently uses OLEDs for the Apple Watch while iOS devices and Macs rely on the premium LCD IPS display technology.
Still, LCD displays are a tremendous battery hog because they require a backlighting as opposed to OLED or Micro-LED panels.
A Micro-LED screen would give a future iPhone at least two to three times the OLED brightness under the same power consumption. And given OLEDs are already significantly more power efficient than LCDs, iPhones and other devices outfitted with Micro-LED panels would waste far less battery power compared to LCDs while boosting display resolution, clarity and brightness.
Alternatively, Apple could initially limit deployment of Micro-LEDs on flat-screened devices before rolling them out to curved or flexible-screen gadgets such as the Apple Watch or a 2017 iPhone with a wraparound display.
No matter how you look at it, the purchase of LuxVue could make a future iPhone’s battery life better than it’s ever been.
And that’s exactly what a lot of people have been clamoring for.