MicroLED technology is a next-generation emissive display technology that promises highly efficient and bright displays that offer superior image quality with infinite contrast and a wide color gamut.
Apple is one of the leading MicroLED developers. Apple acquired Micro-LED developer LuxVue back in 2014- as the company is considering this next-generation display technology as suitable for its various products. Since the LuxVue acquisition, Apple accelerated its MicroLED R&D project and is developing solutions for smartwatches, AR and other display types.
LuxVue microLED patent image
and has not updated on the technology since, but several reports suggested that Apple has an R&D Micro-LED team in Taiwan and some analysts estimated that Apple actually aims to start low-volume Micro-LED production by the end of 2017 with mass production of smart watch displays beginning as soon as 2018.
Apple microLED Watch
For several years, we have heard reports that Apple is aiming to deploy MicroLED displays in future smartwatch projects. The latest Watch devices use LTPO OLED displays, but a microLED display will enable Apple to extend the Watch battery life and increase its brightness. According to reports Apple is collaborating with several companies, mainly in Taiwan, and is actively involved with microLED R&D and production plans.
The latest MicroLED Microdisplays news:
Apple's latest iPad Pro tablets use a mini-LED backlit LCD (which Apple refers to as Liquid Retina XDR). While most reviews of the new display are quite positive, some users are complaining of "blooming" - the edges of bright objects on dark backgrounds tend to 'bleed' as the dimming zone is not small enough.
miniLEDs improve over LCD as they introduce thousands of dimming zones, which increases contrast and improves power consumption. The dimming zones, however, are sometimes not small enough, as some users find out, and cannot compete with an emissive technology such as OLED or microLED.
Display market analysts from Yole Développement posted an interesting article, that speculates that Apple and Huawei are looking into microLED displays based on Si-CMOS micro-ICs. This model could have tremendous implications for the display market.
The idea is that the device maker (Apple is likely to be the first to go down that route) will source micro LEDs from LED producers (or produce these in-house) and source microICs from foundries. Apple could then assemble these into its own displays, in-house. This means that in this model there's no room for traditional display makers which could lead to large disruptions in the display market, according to Yole.
According to a report from Taiwan's Economic Daily news, a new mini-LED and micro-LED display factory is under planning in Taiwan's Hsinchu Science Park. The new fab is built by Apple (who will invest $334 million) in collaboration with AU Optronics and Epistar.
According to the report, the Science Park Administartion approved Apple, Auo and Epistar's plan on February 18. The new fab will act as an expansion of Apple's existing display center in Taiwan.
Yole Developpement reports that about 5,500 microLED patents (2,500 patent families) have been filed, by more than 350 organizations. The rate of patent filing is growing exponentially - 40% of the patents were filed in 2019.
According to Yole, the recent patent filing shows that the industry is moving from prototypes to commercial consumer displays. Other notable new finding include that startup companies are a major innovation force, Apple is slowing down with its IP (but this could mean that the company is now focused on commercialization), and Samsung pursues multiple development tracks. BOE is another strong microLED IP player, with almost 150 patent familiies filed in 2019.
Market analysts at Yole Developpement say that microLED shipments will reach over 125 million panels by 2027. In their aggressive scenario, shipments will reach almost 450 million.
Yole says that microLED technologies are advancing rapidly - and on all fronts, but there are still many challenges to overcome before mass production arrives. MicroLED makes a strong case for the AR, smartwatch and automotive market. For the smartphones and TV markets it is less clear whether MicroLEDs could succeed.
According to Taiwan's Economic News Daily, PlayNitride and RiTDisplay are in talks with Apple to supply microLED displays for Apple's next-generation Watch wearable.
These are just rumors at this stage, but END says that PlayNitride confirms it is in talks with US customers regarding a 3" full-color Micro-LED display. This interesting as this is not a display we are used to see in most mobile devices - wearables are usually limited to around 1.5" while smartphones today start at around 6".
Market research firm Yole Développement has been following the Micro-LED market for some years with some very interesting insights and forecasts.
Yole's technology & market analyst Zine Bouhamri was kind enough to discuss Yole's Micro-LED views with us. Mr. Zine is is a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole and he's deeply involved in the business development of the Displays unit activities.