How MEMS-based displays enable always-on wearables

February 07, 2014 // By Brian Gally
How MEMS-based displays enable always-on wearables
Imagine if, when the first smartphones were being designed, there was no limiting factor around battery life. Think how differently each design decision could have been made. Would form factor be so standardized?

Would the display need to turn off every few seconds after being idle?  What kind of content and usage patterns would have developed around hardware that offered a completely open channel of content flow right into the pocket (or wrist, but we’ll get to that) of a consumer?

Strangely enough, that movement toward a continuous flow of content has actually begun even with display-specific constraints ensconced.  As connectivity through 3G, 4G and WiFi has become seemingly ubiquitous, so, too, has the computing prowess of our mobile devices.  Sensors, chipsets, memory, display and power management are creating a highly contextual environment dictating how and which content is actually served.

All the inertia described above, however, is actually still stymied by that modern mobile buzzkill – the black screen of a display turned off.  Because, you see, this problem has not yet been solved.  Devices are still constrained by their least efficient components:  chief among them is the display. 

Modern displays (LCD or OLED and their variants) all must make certain tradeoffs.  For the bright and colorful experience you want, you trade battery life and the ability to have that experience in brightly lit environments.  While marginal improvements certainly continue to be hashed out in efficiency, the display still consumes upward (well upward in many cases) of 50% of the energy in a mobile device. 

Of particular interest is how this plays out in the new wide-open landscape of wearable computing.  Looking at this category strictly from the perspective of the display technologies therein, there are seemingly two distinct camps.  One says you can have your bright indoor device in exchange for charging daily (at least) and limited visibility outdoors.  The other says you can have your outdoor-readable display and days of battery life, but at the expense of some mix of interactivity, color and pixel density.  This is particularly interesting because the margin for error in a smartwatch is small for two reasons.

Design category: 

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