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:
n-tech Research says that the Micro-LED market will emerge in 2019, with sales reaching $2.7 billion. The market will grow very quickly to reach over $70 billion in 2027.
n-Tech says that the immediate markets for Micro-LED displays will be near-eye displays (AR/VR), automotive HUDs and projectors - as these will benefit mostly from the small size, low weight, high brightness and high resolution of Micro-LED displays. Wearables (smartwatches) is another lucrative market (n-Tech sees $1.6 billion in smartwatch Micro-LED display sales in 2022).
PlayNitride to setup a $17 million Micro-LED production facility, reportedly in talks with Apple towards Micro-LED collaboration
Digitimes reports that Taiwan's Ministry of Science and Technology approved PlayNitride's application to setup a NT$500 million (US$17 million) production facility at Hsinchu Science Park.
PlayNitride aims to produce micro LEDs, display modules and panels at its new facility at Hsinchu. According to Digitimes, Apple is in preliminary talks with PlayNitride towards a possible Micro-LED technology cooperation.
Digitimes: Apple is collaborating with TSMC on Wearable/VR/laptop Micro-LED displays, first displays will enter production by early 2019
Earlier this month Bloomberg reported that Apple is progressing with its Micro-LED development project, and has already managed to produce promising display samples. Now Taiwan's Digitimes reports that Apple is collaborating with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) towards mass production of Micro-LED panels.
Apple and TSMC are focusing on small-sized micro-LEDs on silicon based backplanes, targeting both wearable devices and AR applications. The Micro-LED microdisplays for AR applications will be around 0.7-0.8 inch in size, while the wearable panels will be larger at 1.3-1.4 inch.
The Korea Herald reports that Apple and its subsidiary LuxVue Technology applied for over 30 Micro-LED patents in Korea in the past 10 years. As Apple's Micro-LED project is progressing, the company aims to prevent its competitors in Korea (mainly Samsung and LGD) from using its key Micro-LED technology.
According to the report, Apple applied for 11 patents directly, while LuxVue applied for 23 patents. LuxVue was acquired by Apple in 2014. Apple applied for patents that related to the Micro-LED chip structure, the pick-and-place process and the driving system.
According to a report by Bloomberg, Apple is making good progress in its Micro-LED development project, and has managed to produce promising display samples. Apple is seeking to use Micro-LED displays in future wearable products.
Apple is not likely to become a MicroLED producer, and it will seek partners to eventually produce the displays. However controlling the basic technology could be very beneficial to Apple that aims to be the only company able to use Micro-LED displays - starting in wearables, but also perhaps in smartphones and VR HMDs. In any case, Bloomberg reports that it will still take a few years before Apple's technology is ready for production.
Yole Developpement published an interesting article discussing the patent landscape of the MicroLED industry. As of today, almost 1,500 MicroLED patents were filed by 125 companies and organization. The overall corpus has an average of 3.2 years, which makes these patents quite new.
The initial micro-LED patents, filed at around 2000-2001, were mostly by a variety of research institutes, by large companies such as Sony and Sharp but also by startups such as Luxvue (acquired by Apple). The activity in this field is still led mostly by startups, and with the exception of Sony and Sharp, mature display makers are relative latecomers.
Apple acquired Micro-LED developer LuxVue in May 2014 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.
A new report from Taiwan, however, says that Apple decided to downsize its R&D team in Taiwan. According to the report, a possible explanation is that Apple decided to move its Micro-LED R&D focus to the USA. The same report also says that Apple is collaborating with TSMC to develop applications based on silicon-based backplanes - which could relate to Micro-LEDs.
A few days ago Apple was awarded with 52 different patents, covering a wide range of technologies that include 3D glasses, in-air gesturing, fingerprint sensing and more.
One of these patents details a Micro-LED device that is able to both emit and sense light. We have seen similar solutions based on OLEDs - in that case the photo-diodes were placed between the OLED pixels, to create a micro-display that can sense light (possible applications are for example eye-tracking in a VR headset).