Apple Patents Micro LED ‘Smart Pixel’ Display Tech for Future Devices

Apple Patents Micro LED 'Smart Pixel' Display Tech for Future Devices
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Apple could employ a proprietary, micro LED-based display technology in future iPhones, MacBooks, iMacs, and a variety of other products, according to the company’s recently published ‘Smart Pixel’ patent, which describes a currently-in-development display tech that could be commercially applied in smaller devices like wearables, smartphones, and AR/VR headsets within the next two to three years, and larger devices like Mac computers within the next five.

Apple’s patent, which was filed in the 2nd quarter of this year but published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday, details various embodiments in which traditional thin film transistor (TFT) backplanes (the driving component of current LED-based active matrix displays) could be replaced by a series of ‘Smart Pixel’ microcontrollers, which can add new functionality not previously possible using current TFTs.

The patent is purely technical in nature, and so we’ll spare you the headache (see Micro LED Technical information below). However it’s overall premise is backed up in a report published this week by DigiTimes, which explains why micro-LED could ultimately compete with OLED display technology — particularly when employed in larger devices like computers or televisions, for example.

According to Lee Biing-jye, chairman of Taiwanese LED epitaxial wafer and chip maker, Epistar, “Micro LED technology could be used in smaller, wearable devices like smartwatches in three years,” which would coincide with reports that Apple is looking into ways of incorporating Micro LED display tech in an upcoming variant of the Apple Watch. Specifically, the report says that “Apple is inclined to adopt Micro LED technology for small- to medium-size displays,” while other international consumer electronics vendors like Samsung Electronics, for example, plan to apply the technology in its next-generation of big screen TVs.

Micro LED Technical Information

The patent describes how one or more light emitting diodes (LEDs) can be combined with one or more microcontroller units as the primary pixel switchers and drivers in a display. “In such embodiment, the smart-pixel microcontroller is controlled with a voltage applied to scan lines and a data lines, similar to an active matrix display,” according to PatentlyApple, who adds that “The smart-pixel microcontroller supplements analog circuitry with digital storage to facilitate adaptive refresh rates and display self-refresh.”

In another embodiment, multiple smart-pixel microcontrollers are combined to form a “microcontroller network,” of sorts — a scenario where a tiered arrangement would exist between them. “Multiple types of microcontrollers can be used for various applications, and the microcontrollers can each be tied to a common data bus,” forming a “daisy chain,” or a network through which the controllers can communicate with one another wirelessly.

Overcoming Obstacles

While Apple is slated to introduce some form of OLED display on this year’s high-end iPhone 8 flagship, the DigiTimes report cites hurdles standing in the way of a broader OLED or Micro LED rollout. These center around the actual application of the technology in relation to the large-scale transfer of Micro LED chips, as well as “current control and compatibility with existing LCD production equipment.” Apple’s patent describes various embodiments of ‘Smart Pixel’ technology, however, by which the company can tackle these larger transition obstacles and make the likelihood of a Micro LED-equipped Mac computer plausible sooner than later.

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