Facebook signed a deal to buy several years of the entire output of a key AR microLED display supplier Apple looked at acquiring, The Information reports.
Mark Zuckerberg’s company spends “billions” of dollars researching augmented and virtual reality technology. It has publicly stated its goal of releasing lightweight AR glasses this decade, with the eventual goal of replacing the smartphone as the primary computing device for regular people.
Reports indicate that both companies plan to first ship glasses in 2023. This could lead to fierce competition between the two giants throughout this decade. Microsoft is focusing first on the enterprise market and Google appears to be taking things slow after early efforts in “smart” eyewear failed to take off.
MicroLED: The Future of Displays
Almost all electronic displays today are either LCD (including its many variants) or OLED. LCD pixels provide color, while a separate backlight provides light and, overall, this approach limits contrast. OLED pixels are self-emissive, enabling true blacks and infinite contrast.
Just to be clear here, “miniLED”, “QLED”, and similar names are just marketing terms for variants of LCD, improving backlight technology and adding shutters for better contrast.
MicroLED is a relatively new display technology. It’s self-emissive like OLED, but should be orders of magnitude brighter than OLED, as well as significantly more power efficient. This makes them uniquely suitable for consumer AR glasses, which need to be usable even on sunny days yet powered by a small and light battery.
While all major electronics companies (including Samsung, Sony, and Apple) are actively researching microLED, no company has yet figured out how to affordably mass manufacture it for a consumer product.
Plessey Semiconductors Ltd
Plessey is a UK-based firm manufacturing microLED displays intended for AR headsets and HUDs (heads-up-displays). It was founded in 2010 to build high powered lighting, but in 2017 made a complete pivot to the microLED market.
So what makes Plessey special? Why has Facebook signed this deal, and why was Apple interested in acquisition?
The firm focused specifically on microdisplays, rather than competing for smartphone or TV sized panels.
In May 2019, the firm achieved the world’s first 1080p monolithic microdisplay with individually addressable microLEDs. Monolithic means the display is made on a single wafer.
The company claims that this monolithic approach enables displays to be manufactured faster and cheaper than trying to bond individual microLEDs to a substrate, which is the alternative approach.
At Display Week 2019, the firm showed a demonstration display to the world. Despite being just 0.7″ diagonal, it has a resolution of 1920×1080 and is capable of hundreds of thousands or even millions of nits- several orders of magnitude brighter than current AR headsets. The firm claims it can make microLEDs small enough for a 4K display of the same size.
Don’t get too excited just yet, however. Plessey’s display so far is monochrome, showing only blue- the native color of microLEDs. To display red or green, phosphors or “quantum dot conversion materials” have to be used, which currently have very low efficiency.
A Key Supplier?
According to the report, Plessey is “one of the few makers” of microLED displays suitable for AR glasses.
In March 2019, the company figured out how to manufacture native green microLEDs. In December, it cracked native red too.
Developing a native full color (RGB) microdisplay is on Plessey’s 2020 roadmap. If it can achieve this and figure out how to manufacture it at scale before other competitors, it could be a significant boost for Facebook’s AR plans with this deal.
Unless Apple can find a suitable alternative, Facebook might be able to launch viable consumer glasses earlier or cheaper.