Compared to processors, display technology evolves at a snail's pace, which was evident when we hit the show floor this year at MWC. Despite the virtues extolled by Qualcomm, Intel, Nvidia, TI, and Huawei with their respective SoC designs, every single smartphone that we saw either used an IPS LCD or AMOLED display. That common heredity can't be ignored.
Yet, there was one surprise. At Qualcomm's booth, we saw a few products with interferometric modulator displays (IMOD), which is better known under its trademark name mirasol. For those not in the know, mirasol is the first industrial scale application of a MEMS-based display. The cool part of this technology is that viewing quality doesn't change under different lighting conditions. In fact, the more light there is the better the display looks, because the components in the display panel reflects light similar to the way a butterfly's wings shimmer in the sunlight.
At the microscopic level, there are reflective subpixels that reflect only one wavelength of light (one for red, green, or blue). Multiple elements of each color are used to give combinations of colors by using different ratios of reflected colors and to balance overall brightness of each pixel. From a power perspective, each reflective subpixel has two states. The first requires no power and allows for the display to reflect/display an image. Meanwhile, the application of a voltage can be used to adjust the alignment of the reflective elements to create and image or clear the display.
In theory, this could be a more power efficient solution than e-ink that doesn't have to sacrifice the attraction of color technology. Plus, this technology doesn't suffer the same lag issue that e-ink does, so it's perfectly capable of video. If it's so great, why don't we see more devices using displays?
The problem is cost. The first device to use a mirasol display is called the Kyobo e-reader, which is restricted to the Korean market. It sports 5.7-inch XGA display (1,024x768-pixel resolution, 223 ppi), runs on a Qualcomm 1GHz Snapdragon S2-class processor, and employs a touch screen interface. The cost is roughly $310. There are ambitions to bring this to smartphones, but Qualcomm still has a long road ahead before mirasol is ready to go head to head with AMOLED or IPS LCD displays.