Apple Exploring Hybrid e-Ink/LCD Display Technology

Apple has an obsession with obtaining the best possible performance, both in terms of power usage and quality, out of existing technology. Sometimes this tends to leave some observers of their products disappointed in the raw details on their spec sheets. For instance, recently, some tech. pundits were initially disappointed when Apple did not jump on the OLED bandwagon with other manufacturers when producing new display panels for the iPhone 4 and iPad 2. But as time has shown, OLED still has a way to go in terms of the all-round appeal of the output of its displays – and overall manufacture quality for consumer production units. Consequently Apple’s decision to hone and enhance existing LCD technology, and go for what are in effect augmented LCD displays in its devices, has proven to be the wiser way to go with both the iPad 2 and iPhone 4. And Apple’s users are reaping the benefits of LCD displays with fantastic resolution and clarity – without the downsides of current OLED panels.

Fast forward to today and a Patent filing last week from Apple (which seems eerily reminiscent of one from them in 2009 – and another company’s earlier stabs at hybrid display technology), and it appears that the tech giant may be looking at stealing yet another lead on its rivals by augmenting existing technology in a new and innovative way.

First, here is some background for context… E-Ink technology is capable of producing super high resolution, low power consumption images. But a big drawback is refresh rate. Which means that e-ink displays are just not suited to playing video or games. Great for e-books. Not so good for moving images, or fast updating pages. Think Amazon Kindle. On the flip side, LCD panels are perfectly suited to fast updating images. But draw more power, and even in Apple’s Retina Display incarnations are still not quite as capable of producing perfectly smooth high resolution text; particularly on larger display panels like those found in the iPad 2.

So what to do? Recently Apple’s COO Tim Cook hinted at a massive investment in a new technology. And many of us took that to mean simply an investment in fabrication facilities for high resolution LCD panels. And that may well still be the case. Quite likely is in fact. Production yields of super high resolution LCD panels, like those required to produce a true “Uber Retina Display” which didn’t materialise in the iPad 2, and is currently expected in the iPad 3, are still too low to make them cost effective. And at the moment, that is the only way that Apple can hope to leap ahead of its competition again in display technology for its next iteration of devices.

But it is clear Apple is not putting all of its eggs in one basket. They are also looking at hybrid display technologies, where they may or may not be able to take a different direction from their competitors, once again. Rely on older technology, once again. And astound us all with yet another revolution in the battery life of our mobile devices

Enter hybrid e-ink / LCD displays. The idea, in essence, is simple. Imagine two displays. One overlaid on another. One is a high speed LCD (or even OLED) panel of similar quality to that found in the existing iPad 2 or iPhone 4. The other is an e-ink display capable of showing text in both colour and black and white, but with the kind of quality we expect from devices like the Kindle – and with none of the power drain of an LCD panel.

Clever hardware and software will decide on which of the two sandwiched displays images and text will be shown on. So that static non-changing, or slow updating parts of pages will be rendered to the e-ink layer. And faster updating images will be pushed through to the LCD panel. Images could even be pushed to LCD first, and then if they are to then remain static the LCD panel can give way to a copy of the image which was pushed more slowly to the e-ink layer in parallel. All of this would be seamless from a users perspective.

An obvious place to use this technology is in scrolling web pages and e-books. Page updates or scrolls will be fast and on LCD. And when the scrolling or updating stops the e-ink display holds the image for perfect clarity of viewing – and low power drain.

To get a mental image of how the hardware would be working behind the scenes, imagine our view of a duck on a pond. It looks like it is gliding along, but its feet are paddling like crazy underneath. Once more parts of the image remain static, the ducks feet would simply have to paddle less hard – and ultimately be able to stop in the case of a static page of images and text. All the while to us, the user, we still see a duck gliding effortlessly along on a pond – just like we do today on iOS devices. And all the while that the ducks feet are not paddling so fast our battery life gets extended.

There is no guarantee that this technology will come to pass in Apple’s iOS or desktop devices in the future. But it seems it is certainly something they are looking at. And if you’ve ever looked over at someone reading a Kindle on a subway, and been a little jealous of the even more print-like quality of the digital text that they are reading (even while holding a Retina Display device in your hands) then this might be something for you to look forward to in future iOS devices.

E-Ink/LCD Hybrid for the win? Or just a pipe-dream? Have your say in the comments…