This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s special report: Winners & Losers VII
I’m watching a clip from Slumdog Millionaire on what looks like a standard netbook computer, a scene in which deep blue body paint gives way to luscious saffron-yellow cloth. The picture quality is fine, if nothing special. But then I push a small white button at the side of the display, and it does something I’ve never seen before: The backlight disappears, and the image turns black and white, remaining visible thanks to the overhead lights in the room. I hold up an Amazon Kindle by way of comparison. Both displays have the same crisp grayscale text I’ve come to expect from e-paper.
“You can easily cheat in a demo like this,” says Mary Lou Jepsen, the creator of the prototype screen, “but most movies are shot in very dark conditions, which is hard to display.” Jepsen, who has brought her new liquid crystal display to IEEE Spectrum’s New York City offices, seems confident that her new technology is good enough to take on any challenge. When we step into the bright September sunlight, her new LCD easily outperforms the other screens she brought along for comparison. In black-and-white mode, it’s nearly as bright as the E Ink display on the Kindle, but it also provides seamless video playback. And the expensive indoor-outdoor LCD in her small Toshiba R600 laptop is so dim and washed out that it doesn’t stand a chance.
It seems that at last we have a screen that gives you what you want, when you want it. If you need to extend your battery’s charge or work outside, you can have perfectly good black-and-white text. If power and sunlight are not a problem, you can watch a full-color movie. It could be the most versatile display ever made, and it comes from Pixel Qi Corp., Jepsen’s company in San Bruno, Calif. Jepsen has both an electrical engineering degree and a Ph.D. in optics, and she’s had plenty of experience in the display field—first with Microdisplay Corp., a company she started in 1995 that built liquid crystal on silicon chips for high-definition TVs, and later at Intel, as chief technology officer of the display division.
But she first developed the idea of a dual-mode display while working at the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child Association, which aims to provide educational computers to the poorest children in the world. Jepsen, a cofounder of the organization, was given the task of creating a screen that would use very little power and could be read outdoors, without sacrificing color or video capability. It also had to be inexpensive. Gaining unprecedented access to the big Taiwanese LCD manufacturers, Jepsen was able to create just such a display.
In 2008 she left OLPC to found Pixel Qi, with the goal of creating a similarly versatile screen for mainstream users and manufacturers. In late May 2009, Pixel Qi introduced the first prototype of the 3Qi display and began mass production in December; it expects multitouch tablet PCs featuring the display to ship in early 2010. John Ryan, Pixel Qi’s chief operating officer, says it costs slightly more than a standard LCD screen, but Jepsen maintains that it’ll still be inexpensive enough to go in products priced as low as US $200.
Pixel Qi’s first production display is a 10-inch screen with 1024 by 600 pixels in the full-color mode. It’s the first LCD screen that’s optimized for mobile computing, in which the most common activity is the reading of text—in e-mail, code, or on a Web site. In adequate light, you can easily read and write without wasting any battery power on the backlight.
The design thus runs counter to the tendency in the LCD world to continually improve video quality for the more lucrative television market. For several years, laptops have generally offered the option of a glossy “cinema” display, and while that’s great for watching movies in the dark, it’s virtually useless for working outside, or even in front of a big window.