To make OLED a practical technology that's used more broadly, Sony will also have to find ways to ensure that the color quality of the screen can last long enough to justify the price. Sony said the XEL-1 has a viewing life of 30,000 hours, which allows a user to watch eight hours of television each day for 10 years. "When you put light through organic material, it tends to degrade rapidly over time," Forrest says. "We have to have long-lifetime displays, otherwise people won't buy them."
Sony's research into the use of organic materials began in 1994 and a decade later led to the mass production of small-size, color OLED panels in mobile devices. The company last month began mass producing the organic panel used in the XEL-1, which Sony says is the first stage of its OLED TV business. Sony rival Samsung demonstrated a 40-inch OLED TV in 2005 but has not moved the technology into production. Fremont, Calif.–based iriver America uses OLED technology in the displays of its Clix digital audio players, and Nokia offers OLED displays in some of its cell phones.
"Sony's approach is to develop a reliable production line for making moderate-size displays," Thompson says. "What Sony is doing is very smart, because they're saying, 'Let's just start manufacturing.'"
If OLED technology takes off, LCD's days are numbered. "LCD is having a real problem with advances in video, because it can't keep up with the millisecond video response rates as well as CRT (cathode-ray tube) and plasma screens can," Thompson says.
OLED technology will have an impact well beyond video screens as the U.S. Department of Energy encourages replacing old incandescent bulbs with more efficient and environmentally friendly alternatives. Fluorescent bulbs have proved to be an efficient option, but they contain hazardous chemicals such as mercury that are not easy to dispose of when they run out of juice.
Forrest is researching the use of electroluminescent light sources such as OLEDs to replace incandescent and fluorescent lighting sources. It is a formidable challenge, given that more than 125 years of manufacturing experience has enabled companies to sell incandescent bulbs for less than a dollar. Fluorescent lighting is coming down in price and uses only a quarter the energy of incandescent bulbs, "but you can't just throw them away when you're done with them," he says. "They need to be recycled."