Wouldn't it be handy if you could go to the beach, take an object the size of a fountain pen out of your pocket, unfold a 15-inch monitor and surf the Web or watch the Dodgers beat up on the Giants?
If Ghassan Jabbour has his way, one of these days you will be able to do just that.
Jabbour, an assistant research professor in the optical sciences department at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is developing thin screens that are so flexible they can be folded and tucked away.
"When you're done, you just fold it back up and put away your pen and move on," Jabbour said.
The heart of the system is at the leading edge in research into next-generation monitors for everything from laptops to billboards. What makes the Arizona program unique, however, is the ability to fabricate display screens that are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair using simple and inexpensive printing techniques.
That is made possible by the use of organic light-emitting diodes that can be "imprinted" on a sheet of plastic nearly as thin as the stuff we use to wrap last night's leftovers before putting them in the fridge.
The monitors are similar to liquid crystal displays, the ubiquitous screens on current laptops, but they differ in several important ways. They emit their own light, so they can be used in any lighting from a darkened room to direct sunlight, and they can be viewed from just about any angle. Jabbour believes that ultimately they will be cheaper to manufacture and more efficient to use.
He admits that his research is still in the early stages, and he can't promise exactly when this magic will become available, but his program is part of a consortium funded by the Defense Department to move the technology from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Because these screens are made of several layers of ultra-thin films, it is important to find a cheaper way to make them than is currently available. Jabbour and his team have already cleared one major hurdle: They have fabricated screens on plastic films that are so thin they can be folded and unfolded repeatedly. Research is underway to assess the loss in the quality of the films by repeated folding.
"What is exciting to us is that this is the first time ever that you can get a film, using this technology, that is 1,000 times thinner than a human hair," he said.
The technology uses organic, or carbon-based, diodes that emit light in different colors when they are turned on by an electric current. Three diodes--one green, one blue and one red--make up single pixels, or dots of light that form an image on a monitor. The film can be partitioned into millions of pixels.
To make the first screens, Jabbour and fellow researchers Dino Pardo, Rachel Radspinner and Nasser Peyghambarian borrowed from the ancient technology of screen printing that enables the transfer of a pattern to a substrate by the use of a frame, a fabric, a design stencil, ink and a squeegee. That allowed them to deposit the "ink," or in this case the carbon-based molecules that make up the diodes, directly on a thin film of plastic.
Jabbour believes that technology might lead to huge, cheap monitors for billboards and stadium signs where high resolution is not an issue.
It will take new technology, which the researchers are working on now, to produce screens with the kind of resolution needed for computers and television sets.
Some small displays based on organic materials are already in the marketplace, and Jabbour thinks that it should be possible to scale that up to larger displays, but that could take a few years.
"Maybe in four or five years, you should be able to buy it, or the whole thing will stop," he said.
Of course, before you can really sit down on the beach with your pen-sized laptop, another hurdle will have to be overcome.
"The only problem is the keyboard," he said. It might be a little harder to fold that up and stuff it back inside the pen. That problem could be solved with a sound-activated system that would eliminate the need for a keyboard.
At this stage, Jabbour admits that "it sounds like science fiction," and he's not eager to be pinned down on when your laptop will look like a pen. But research is now underway at several institutions and companies that are members of the consortium to develop 15-inch flexible displays that can be folded and tucked away when not in use.
Lee Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.