Liquavista Technology – what’s the catch?

The story that caught my attention particularly this week is the report that Samsung is trying to sell Liquavista, the Philips spin-off that it bought in January 2011 (the story has been going around for some time, but activity seems to have stepped up).

Liquavista, which became the Samsung Netherlands Research Centre) had a technology based on electro-wetting. It uses tiny drops of liquid which normally sit in the corner of each pixel. Applying a voltage changes the surface tension of the drop, which spreads out. The drop can be used to block either transmitted or reflected light, or a mixture in a transflective configuration. The technology is bistable – that is it needs no power to operate unless it changes, which makes it ideal for mobile applications. The switching is very fast and supports colour, so video can be produced and with no polarisers, the display can have high efficacy- lots of the light from the light source can be preserved.

A major benefit of the Liquavista technology is that it can be made on existing LCD production lines. When it was an independent company, Liquavista was trying to persuade those with existing, but unprofitable, LCD production lines to adopt its concept. It told us in 2010 that it was 95% compatible and would soon be 100% compatible with LCD production.

So, the technology supports lots of different configurations and gives high efficacy with video and colour support, while being bistable making it ideal for eBooks and manufacturable on existing product lines. What’s not to like?

I said in my report from the SID in 2010 that I couldn’t see the ‘gotcha’ with the technology. Sometimes, it’s only when you get really involved with a technology that you spot what turns out to be a weakness that might be fatal for development .I remember being at a conference in Bavaria when I heard that the ‘Binem’ bistable LCD technology from Nemoptic in France had a weakness in temperature range (Display Monitor Vol. 11 No 19) . As temperature varied, the level of grey scale changed. In the end, Nemoptic was not able to bring the technology to the market. I don’t know if was the temperature issue that was a fatal weakness.

In 2010, I asked lots of analysts and commentators where they thought the ‘gotcha’ was, but I wasn’t able to pin anything down. I’m still not sure (and if you have an idea, please let me know at [email protected]!). I wonder if it was high resolution – the 100+ ppi performance of a couple of years ago is no longer good enough. Furthermore, at the moment, the eReader segment is in a decline that could be permanent.

Another of the interesting questions about the Liquavista move by Samsung was that the technology was about the only low power technology that wasn’t swept up by the Taiwanese when they bought E Ink, SiPix and the rest. At the time, it was said that this was because the Liquavista deal was perhaps too expensive for them – or at a valuation that they thought was too high. If so, it seems they were right.

The wider question is about the possible demise of another of the competitors to LCD. I recently helped a client with a training programme by suggesting that they include a list of the failed competitors to AM LCD. I came up with: CRT (many companies), Cathode Ray Panel (Philips), PALC (Tektronix/Sony/Philips/Sharp), PDP (Fujitsu/NHK/Panasonic/LG/Samsung/Pioneer/NEC/Mitsubishi), FED (Candescent/Sony/FED corp), FLCD (Canon), SED (Canon +Toshiba), EL/TFEL (Planar/Westaim), AM VFD (Futaba/Kyocera), GLV (GLV &Sony), TFD (Epson and Philips), E Ink (past its peak), Electrowetting (Philips/Samsung), Mirasol (Qualcomm), DLP Rear Projection (TI/Compaq/Mitsubishi), LCOS Rear Projection (Philips/Sony/Sharp/Mitsubishi).

I may have missed one (again, I welcome suggestions), but the point is clear. These days, there is really only one significant competitor to AM LCD, and that is AMOLED. Unless, of course, you know differently!