Troy Wolverton: The future of screens is seriously twisted

CES 2016 attendees get totally immersed by 112 LG OLED displays at CES International.
CES 2016 attendees get totally immersed by 112 LG OLED displays at CES International. Associated Press Images for LG Electronics

In recent years, TVs and other displays have become bigger, thinner, sharper and slightly curved. In the near future, they’ll twist into all kinds of shapes and even be see-through.

At least that’s what LG Display, one of the major producers of screens for televisions, smartphones, tablets and digital signs, envisions.

Much of LG Display’s development these days is focusing on OLED, or organic light-emitting diode, technology. Unlike most displays sold today, which produce images by filtering a backlight through liquid crystals, an OLED screen itself emits light, basically right on its surface. That allows OLED screens to be thinner than traditional LCD (more commonly known these days as LED displays, because they use LED backlights) screens. It also allows them to display much deeper blacks and contrasts between lights and darks because a traditional LCD generally has a backlight going at all times, even when it’s displaying black and dark colors.

But the other cool thing about OLEDs is that unlike LCDs, they can be produced on flexible plastic materials. One day that could allow you to have a tablet computer that you could roll up into a tube or a smartphone that you could roll up into a pen.

The company had on display at last week’s CES 2016 convention in Las Vegas a prototype that was bent around itself like a rolled-up newspaper. It was about 18 inches square, but almost as thin as a piece of paper. It was running full-motion video over its entire surface without a hitch. And it wasn’t protected behind a case.

It was unclear when that kind of screen will be built into consumer products. What’s closer to being seen in the real world are super-curved – but not flexible – OLED displays. LG Display was showing off two 65-inch screens, both with dramatic curves, one convex curve and the other concave.

The convex one was designed to be wrapped around something like a column inside a building, such as a sign inside an airport, giving directions to baggage claim or the time of arrivals. The concave screen was bent almost back in half. LG Display screens could also be used to give an immersive, almost 3-D experience for someone playing video games.

But being able to dramatically fold and bend screens isn’t the only cool thing that can be done with OLED technology. You can also use it to produce transparent displays. LG Display showed off a prototype screen that could be placed in a retailer’s window that might show advertisements or videos in front of the retailer’s products. The images appeared almost as if they were suspended in the air; when the screen went blank, you could see through it like a slightly tinted window.

Even headphones are getting smarter

Your next set of headphones may come with a music service built in, no phone required.

At the CES convention, Aivvy, a Redwood City startup, was showing off a device it has dubbed the world’s first smart headphones.

The over-the-ear, wireless headphones have a built-in Wi-Fi radio that allows them to connect directly to the Internet via your home router whenever you plug them in to charge. Using that connection, they can download songs and playlists from the music service Aivvy is developing.

The earphones have twistable and touch-sensitive knobs on the outside of each earpiece that allow users to control the volume, skip songs with a swipe, “like” songs with a tap and change “channels” as they listen to music. Their rechargeable batteries will last 30 to 40 hours on a single charge, the company says.

Aivvy has signed a deal with Monster, the giant maker of video and audio cables, to offer a version of its earphones under Monster’s brand. The company is also planning to sell the headphones under its own brand.

Users will get a year’s subscription to Aivvy’s music service included with the headphones. With the subscription, users can load up to eight “channels” or playlists on their earphones with 40 to 50 songs each, company co-founder David Ring said. After a year, consumers can expect to pay $3 to $4 a month to continue to listen to the service, he said.

The headphones can also function as more traditional earpieces for smartphones and music players; users just have to connect them via a cord. However, while users will be able to play songs they own or playlists from other music services through Aivvy’s headphones, they won’t be able to store those songs or playlists on the earphones so they can listen to them without their phone around.

Boosting Wi-Fi

Super Wi-Fi, the long-promised – but to-date little seen – speedy new way of connecting to the Internet, may soon get a boost.

Designed to take advantage of the so-called white-spaces between over-the-air digital television signals, Super Wi-Fi promises to address some of the shortcomings of traditional Wi-Fi and cellular networking. The frequency band it operates in can transmit signals over long distances in rural areas or can send them through walls in urban areas that other wireless technology can’t penetrate.

Although the frequency bands are unlicensed, companies and devices that operate in them are under a mandate from the Federal Communications Commission to not interfere with adjacent television signals. That can be difficult, because some forms of wireless signals can bleed over from one frequency band into another.

But a new technology for wireless transmissions developed by Leti, a French research institute, could solve that problem. Recently approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers as a new transmission standard dubbed 1900.7, the technology was specifically designed for Super Wi-Fi. It creates a small but sharp boundary between its signals and nearby television transmissions. The result, according to Leti officials, is that Super Wi-Fi data streams could be sent up 37 miles using just 4 watts without interference in rural areas or more than a mile inside a dense urban area. At a booth at the CES show, Leti officials had a demo showing a television signal that was uninterrupted despite having two high-speed data transmissions being sent over nearby frequencies.

Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Read more at, @troywolv