Will The Future’s Pixels Be Micro-Mirrors?

I unintentionally set off a nice little flame war last week when I criticized Samsung’s decision to go with a Pentile sub-pixel matrix for their new Galaxy Nexus phone, a display technology that doesn’t have an illustrious past and, while it may prove itself in this generation, still made me lose confidence in the phone. Sub-pixel layouts are something few people consider, but (as the Engineer Guy explains) all those pretty colors you see on your displays are almost always made up of a few tiny monochromatic dots. E-ink screens use one dot per pixel, but they are of course monochrome, and the Mirasol and Pixel Qi displays we’ve seen also use an RGB matrix. But research being done in Taiwan may combine the best of both worlds.

Wallen Mphepö, a researcher at National Chiao Tung University, has created a new kind of pixel that operates completely differently from existing technologies. The details are a bit scarce, as his research has not yet been published except as a summary in this article at the Economist (the image accompanying this article is just an illustration).

The way the new screens work is that each pixel, normally created by a set of sub-pixels, is instead a single mechanism: a 30-micron piece of zirconium oxide (you probably know it best as cubic zirconia) with a 1.23-micron layer of silver on top. But while you’d think the silver would act as the reflective layer, it in fact acts as the transmissive layer, allowing light to pass through and strike the ZrO2. By tilting the whole pixel mechanism using a micro-electromechanical system, the wavelengths of light allowed to pass through in and out are changed. And Mr. Mphepö claims that each single pixel can produce a full optical palette, or close to it.

This means that using this new style of pixel would instantaneously triple pixel density, or conversely, reduce the transistors and mechanisms necessary to create a given resolution by two-thirds.

The new screens have not been demonstrated; indeed, it is not clear whether Mr. Mphepö has even been able to stick more than one of these micro-mirror pixels together. And as usual, research like this take ages to arrive in consumer hands. But if it does what it claims to do, there are many companies that would buy it in a heartbeat and fast-track it to market to compete with E-ink (which dominates passive displays) and provide a full-color, low-power alternative to LCD-based tablets.