October 16, 2007 Fresh from a recent showing at CEATEC Japan 2007, Sony has announced that its 11” Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) display will be available from December 1 in Japan, creating a whole new TV category that will offer extreme color quality, million-to-one contrast ratios, ultra-quick refresh rates, unparalleled viewing angles and a screen thickness of only 3mm at its thinnest point.

The Sony XEL-1 will be the world’s first commercially available OLED screen when it hits the Japanese market at the end of the year – but it will be the beginning of an exciting new era of TV technology that will eventually offer low-cost, low-consumption TVs with exceptional viewing characteristics and screens so thin they can be rolled up for storage.

OLED technology has its origins in a number of 1950s and 60s research projects which showed that certain organic materials would produce electroluminescence when exposed to AC power. Different colored organic luminescents are arranged in a matrix to form an OLED screen.

Because these organic chemicals are themselves luminescent, an OLED screen doesn’t need a backlight like an LCD screen does – so it uses far less power, and can show a “true” black colour.

The nanometer-thick luminescent layer can be easily and cheaply produced – an OLED screen can literally be printed onto a substrate material using an inkjet or screen printing technique – which opens up the ability to create flexible screens, or even screens embedded in clothing.

The real drawcard of OLED is the exquisite picture quality it enables. Sony’s OLED range will be capable of million-to one contrast ratios, with extremely deep blacks and extremely high peak brightness. Even the darkest movie scenes will come alive with the rich range of subtle tones available, and a wide range of bright color is possible.

Viewing angle is excellent, unlike LCD – you can see perfect color on an OLED from nearly side-on, and the refresh rate is up to 12 times quicker than on an LCD, meaning that there’s virtually no blur on fast sports action shots. Sony’s OLED demo fleet has been dropping jaws at electronics conventions around the world since around January and Gizmag recently encountered the range at CEATEC Japan 2007.

So… Cheap, fast, outstanding picture, extraordinarily thin… Well, there’s always a drawback – and with organic LEDs it’s the relatively quick degradation times of the organic chemicals they contain. The blue phosphorescents in particular tend to have an active service life of around 5,000 hours – less than a tenth of the life of a typical LCD – and any intrusion of water into the screen area can completely destroy the display, which limits the use of OLEDs in clothing.

Still, if your aim is to have the absolute best picture, and a screen so thin that it almost looks like it’s hovering in mid-air, it’s great to know that these Sony OLEDs will be available in Japan from December this year, and the company has clearly stated plans to bring the technology to the rest of the world alongside their Bravia LCD range as an entirely new TV category.

At 200,000 Yen (Around US$1700), XEL-1 buyers will certainly be paying an early-adopter tax for the small but exquisite screens, but it’s clearly the beginning of something exciting – Sony already have a demo-version 27” model travelling around to conventions with them. We can’t wait to see the big-screen OLEDs come rolling out, and see if Sony have any tricks up their sleeve to prolong the active life of these magnificent screens.

Incidentally, the possibilities opened up by OLED technology go far beyond TV screens – we wrote last year about emerging research that proposed that OLED arrays could be used to replace light bulbs throughout a house – making all sorts of curved and straight surfaces potential light sources around a home.

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