Coming Soon: Thinner Screens

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In the coming years, our computer, television and mobile phone screens will get thinner, clearer and smarter. Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman, offers his insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm joined now by our resident tech expert, and this week our resident king of comparison shopping, Omar Gallaga. Omar, I understand that you took Yuki's piece to heart and you actually tried this.

OMAR GALLAGA: Yeah I did. I actually went to Best Buy, my local one, and took the Amazon.com iPhone app and compared prices on a Blu-ray home theater in a box. There was about a $120 price difference. And although I didn't walk out with it, they were willing to match the price after they checked with the manager and double-checked the price online.

SIEGEL: Oh, score one for you. Moving on now, as promised, to screens. You've been spending a lot of time lately thinking and writing about the future of screen technology. Screens have been getting thinner and thinner. Is the future that they'll get even thinner and thinner after that?

GALLAGA: They will be. I attended a conference put on by the Society for Information Display in San Antonio few weeks ago and the screens I saw were so thin - I mean, we're talking millimeters instead of inches thick. The stuff we're seeing like OLED displays, they're much more vibrant and much more saturated in color than even what you're used to on a very high-end HD TV. But that's just part of it. I mean, definitely thinner screens that we're going to see in our living rooms, but there's also other trends going on in screens such as flexible displays, that are more energy efficient and can be embedded in more devices.

If you think of the kind of stuff you see in the "Harry Potter" movies, like ID cards with moving images on them. We're going to get much closer to the E Ink flexible newspapers and wearable displays that we've been thinking about for a couple of years.

SIEGEL: But you're saying there actually could be - or there is already - an HD TV screen that is as vivid as what one can see now but is just millimeters thick?

GALLAGA: Yeah, the razor thin, they're calling - or needle thin displays, companies like Samsung and LG are introducing those. Even at large sizes, you know, the 40 to 60-inch TVs, they really are absolutely, you know, millimeters thin.

SIEGEL: And you mentioned wearable displays, what do I want to wear?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GALLAGA: We're seeing this trend in flexible screens that are being kind of mass produced starting this year. The kinds of things you see on say the Amazon E Ink display that's very low energy but can be kind of embedded into clothing or different products. There was a company there called Universal Display Corp that showed off a wearable wrist display. It was curved, the screen looks amazing, but it looks a bit like a big, chunky gauntlet that Hercules might wear. You know, it is a bit bulky, but that's kind of the price you pay for being so fashion-forward.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And I could watch movies or communicate on Facebook on this thing, or something like that…

GALLAGA: Yeah, I mean, it was about the size of a Sony PSP screen - very, very vibrant. You could pretty much display anything on it - movies, do some light Web browsing on your wrist.

SIEGEL: So, these developments in screens are taking place on the smaller appliance that we might use - a phone, perhaps a watch - and also on big screens as well.

GALLAGA: Right. And on the big screen side, one big trend that we see this year is that they're trying to get these TVs to be more power efficient. They're trying to get the power down by a factor of three. So say a 60 or 70 watt TV could use as little as less than 20 watts. And also the displays, like we said, are going to be more vibrant, more color-saturated, much more so even than the high-end HD TVs that you see now. And we're also seeing screens that will be able to communicate through the screen. Samsung showed off a display that, paired with the right technology on, say, your cell phone, could actually recognize things you put in front of it.

SIEGEL: Does my cell phone want to communicate with a screen, why it would do that?

GALLAGA: Well, it's a kind of thing like you might have seen in "Minority Report," where, you know, you might have targeted advertising where it knows who you are and can recognize your face, for instance. Say, you wanted to shop for an item. You might have a picture of it on your phone that you would show to the screen and it would be able to recognize it and pair you up with items that are similar to that they you might want to buy online, for instance.

SIEGEL: Well, I look forward to it, Omar, and thank you once again.

GALLAGA: Thanks for having me. And a video that I shot at that display conference…

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

GALLAGA: …includes things like this razor thin TVs we're talking about, Pico projectors that you can fit in your pocket. We're going to be posting that video on the NPR All Tech block at npr.org/alltech.

SIEGEL: Okay, Omar Gallaga covers technology culture at the Austin American Statesman. And we will leave you with this bit of wishful thinking: imagine you're on the road and you left your cell phone charger at home. But instead of having to buy a new charger or find a colleague with the same phone, you can borrow anyone's charger because every mobile phone uses the same charger. You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one because soon this will be case in Europe. Apple, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung, among others, have all signed on to the one-size-fits-all charger, available January 2010. No word yet when, or if, the idea will land stateside. We can only hope.

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