Personal hovercraft. Jet-propelled backpacks. Robots that automatically prepare your meals and clean up afterwards. And everyone's favorite - weekend junkets to the orbting Hilton space station. Back in the optimistic 1950s, technology writers were confident that by the 21st century, such things would be a part of daily life. In hindsight, their predictions proved, more than anything, just how hard it is to predict the future.
Undeterred by the difficulty of the task (or the prospect of being profoundly embarrassed in the 22nd century), the editors and I sat down and picked five consumer-electronics technologies that we guarantee . . . um, think maybe will emerge as being significant over the next few years. Some of them are already for sale - albeit only in expensive, early-adopter form - while others are still incubating in the lab. Either way, all five have the potential to raise the technology bar dramatically.
After making our choices, we realized that all of them have to do with video. Does this mean that audio is a done deal? Not at all. Audio is still very much a work in progress, but we do believe that video has the steepest growth curve right now. So, engage the autopilot in your personal rocket car, turn on the heads-up display, and see what's on the road ahead.
If you think your LCD TV is keen or your plasma rocks, check out OLED. Organic Light-Emitting Diode TVs might become the ultimate winner of the LCD vs. plasma war. Like a conventional LED, an OLED is a solid-state device that emits light. But unlike LEDs, OLEDs use organic compounds for the emissive layer; these compounds can be deposited on substrates in dense rows and columns, making them ideal for displays.
OLED technology offers a number of advantages over other screen types. Most strikingly, because it doesn't require backlighting (like LCD), an OLED screen can be built on a single glass substrate and thus can be extremely thin - perhaps 3 millimeters, or about the thickness of three credit cards. Can your LCD do that?
OLED can also provide faster response times than standard LCD screens (perhaps 0.01 millisecond vs. 10 milliseconds), greatly reducing motion blur. Because there's no backlight, there's no light output when displaying black - and this helps deliver a very high contrast ratio. Although current-generation OLEDs are relatively expensive, they're fundamentally simpler to manufacture than LCD or plasma screens and might eventually cost considerably less.
Finally, OLED is a green technology. Ditching the backlight saves on power consumption, so OLED can be 40% more efficient than LCD, and it also avoids the mercury content of backlights. On the downside, at least for now, the organic materials in OLEDs have a relatively short lifetime. In particular, blue OLEDs last for about 5,000 hours, compared with 60,000 hours for LCD or plasma screens. But considerable effort is being made to improve endurance.
OLED is already available in small-screen devices like cellphones and personal media players. Sony is the first to offer an OLED TV in the U.S. market. With an 11-inch screen and an advertised contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1, the XEL-1 retails at Sony Style stores for $2,500. (No, that price isn't a typo.) Even if you're not ready to trade in your 65-incher for it, check out its thin screen, deep blacks, brilliant brightness, and wide viewing angle. Meanwhile, Samsung has shown a number of large OLED prototypes, and Toshiba and Panasonic are among other companies anxious to maintain their reputations as display-technology innovators.
OLED is a slam dunk for small-screen applications, but it's not ready to be a contender in the big leagues. Because companies have invested billions to ramp up the manufacture of LCD and plasma, they'll think carefully before retooling for big OLED TVs, which require radically different manufacturing techniques.
Also, although OLED's relatively short life isn't a problem in intermittently used devices like cellphones, it's a serious limitation in big screens that are meant to run for years. Short-term, OLED's impact will be big in small screens, but relatively small in big screens. Look for portables and even laptops, but don't expect to see family-size TVs for another few years.
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