The next time you buy a cell phone, take a close look at the display panel. If things go the way Qualcomm hopes, that colorful little rectangle could give a whole new meaning to the expression “butterfly effect.” True, the interferometric modulator (IMOD) displays recently introduced by the San Diego–based firm have nothing to do with the unexpectedly strong effect a wing beat can theoretically have on the weather. But the devices do use an array of artificial microstructures to produce the same kind of iridescent colors as are seen on the wings of tropical butterflies. And Qualcomm is betting that its approach will give IMODs several advantages over today’s dominant liquid-crystal-display (LCD) technology.

Most important is that an IMOD display is much easier on a handset’s battery—a characteristic that will matter more and more as people increasingly use cell phones for Web browsing, text messaging, and playing games, videos and music. Such intensified use poses a severe power-management challenge for LCDs, most of which cannot be read at all unless they have a backlight shining up through them. But an IMOD display simply reflects ambient light the way paper (or a butterfly wing) does.