Over the festive period, the gaming industry sees sales double or even triple according to the NPD group. With new devices like the Nintendo Switch OLED and Oculus Quest 3 shining a light on organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology, many consumers have wondered what benefits the transition from liquid crystal display (LCD) to OLED brings. Here, Dr Franky So, Chief Technology Officer at OLED innovator NextGen Nano, sheds some light on what OLED brings to the gaming and VR industry and what we can expect to see in the future. 

The difference between OLEDs and traditional LEDs extends far beyond the semiconductor material used in fabrication. The organic compounds used in OLEDs are capable of achieving self-illumination, rather than relying on an LED backlight shining through a liquid crystal layer. This not only makes OLED displays slimmer and more lightweight than their LED counterparts, but the capacity for OLED pixels to turn on and off individually reduces energy consumption. This development in light technology has led many to argue that OLEDs are the future, especially in the gaming industry.

Why would a gamer choose an OLED device?

If we take the new Nintendo Switch OLED as an example, though the resolution remains the same at 1280x720p, gamers will see improvement. When the pixels turn off on the original LCD screen, each pixel is controlled by the switch of liquid crystal. As a result, when the pixel is turned off it shows a dark grey colour rather than a true black, which lowers the contrast of the display. Furthermore, the need for a constantly activated backlight in LCD screens consumes a lot of energy.

Each pixel on an OLED display can be turned off, which gives the true black look. This means there is higher contrast and lower energy consumption. This can be reflected in the battery life, with a 7-inch OLED screen having a similar battery life as a 6.2-inch LCD screen with the same battery. OLED screens will also look more vibrant for gamers because of the rich colour supplied by the nature of organic emitters and the higher contrast.

Manufacturing OLEDs also consumers less energy than LCD manufacturing. The deposition of LED films in LCDs requires a much higher temperature, from around 400–800 degrees Celsius, as the inorganic materials need to form crystals. This contrasts OLED films, where deposition is around 100–300 degrees Celsius.

The challenge of burn-in

An issue that some consumers have shown uncertainty around is burn-in. This happens through the slow degradation of pixels and is seen as an intrinsic issue of OLEDs. The OLED display’s ability to activate each pixel individually means the working time of each pixel can be very different, which can lead to some dying earlier than others — the undesired side of having a true black screen.

Though manufacturers will not be able to eliminate this problem, it can be eased. The best way to ease the pixel lifetime is to focus on material development and device architecture improvement. Blue OLED is still in research stages and showing great promise, but is currently in a bottleneck. To bypass this issue, manufacturers need to start applying OLED screens in dynamic displays such as phones and TVs. The changing image equalizes the degradation of each pixel so that the burn-in slows down. This is different to laptops or monitors as they usually operate on a static image which causes faster burn in, which is why we’ve seen very few OLED laptops and monitors.

The rise of the VR headset

VR headsets have been in the mainstream gaming market for 10 years and have gone through much development as companies hope to increase their popularity. From removing headset cables to sensor integration, it first caught mass popularity with Oculus Rift prior to the brand’s acquisition by Meta in 2014.

The creation of new applications like the Metaverse will also increase further hype around VR headsets. Though we will have to see how the metaverse is optimised, it will lead to the development of both hardware and software as it aims to change the way that people communicate.

A good-quality VR headset screen needs high resolution and contrast, both of which can be achieved by LCDs. However, the OLED gives much better contrast because of the organic emitters. Furthermore, gamers will want a headset that is lightweight to avoid neck strain from prolonged use, which is yet another area where OLED’s lighter structure is advantageous.. Since OLED also uses less energy, it decreases the need for higher battery capacities, which allows for the development of lighter headsets.

Though VR headset screens previously used LCDs as they are cheaper, the price of manufacturing high resolution OLED screens is decreasing. This could mean we see OLED screens soon dominating the VR headset market.

The future of OLED and LCD

Research into the potential of OLEDs will advance how the technology manifests on the market. NextGen Nano is among the companies leading research in this space, with its New Fusion Technology showing promise for low-voltage blue OLEDs that only require half the operating voltage of conventional OLEDs. This gives them a much longer lifetime. In August 2021, NextGen Nano acquired Nanoled’s intellectual property platform, which opened the potential for this technology in the VR market.

Nanoled is continuing to pursue a better blue OLED through designing more efficient blue emitters, which could potentially alleviate the degradation and burn-in issue that OLED screens face. The company’s researchers are also trying to integrate the plasmonic effect in OLEDs, which not only enhances the exciton radiative rate but also decreases quenching possibility to improve device lifetime. This method would be universally applicable to all screens and could see the lifetime of a device enhanced by two or three times.

As OLED technology enters the gaming market, further development will be needed to break boundaries. As researchers like Nextgen Nano and Nanoled continue to push the boundaries, who knows what OLEDs will be capable of in the future?

To keep up to date with NextGen Nano’s research into OLEDs, click here.