Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Wearable Electronics…July 2007

There was a time in the not too distant past when the status symbol for a busy executive was to have a “car phone”.  This show of executive prowess was evidenced to the rest of us not-so-important managers by receiving calls from such higher-level executives as they traveled from location to location.  Then gradually, in the late ‘80s, the car phone became more common and affordable so that some of the rest of us could also get one as a show of our presumed importance and our need for location-independent communications. 

Of course, as time went on, the car phone became more portable and we could actually carry one around with us as long as we had a briefcase the size of a large shopping bag.  And then, as the saying goes, “the rest is history”.   But before we move forward into the next exciting decade, let’s jump back to those days of yesteryear when the car phone was in it’s heyday.

It was during this time, as I was attempting to look ahead at the next decade of display technologies and potential markets, that the following now-obvious insight came to me – “I don’t want to talk to your phone, I want to talk to you”.  What I was thinking by this statement is that when I make a phone call to your office, it’s not your office that I want to reach, it’s you.  Given this reasonable expectation, the direction toward wider use of cell phones becomes rather obvious. 

This thought process led me to the identification of a product category that I began to call “wearable electronics”.   In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when I would mention this in my presentations, I would have to explain that my expectation was that wireless communications bandwidth would increase over the coming years and that there would be a convergence of communications and computers.   And furthermore, that there would be a convergence of communications and entertainment.  The general response to these predictions was, at best, polite non-enthusiasm.       

Oh, if only I had been able to show my audiences the new Apple iPhone!   Or even a current version of the small cell phones with built-in cameras that we all now carry with us.  In the late ‘80s, these would have been seen as devices right out of science fiction movies.  

The desire and need for us to communicate, acquire information, and be entertained as we move about is something that is finally beginning to be recognized and addressed with an ever-increasing breadth of products.  And in my opinion, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what we can expect to see over the coming two decades.   As an ever more connected worldwide society, we are becoming more mobile and less location dependent.  The concept of having an assigned work location and doing all of our business activities from “the office” is beginning to be recognized as not all that important.  Of course, certain professions that depend on laboratory or manufacturing facilities cannot as readily become location-independent.  But in time even those workers will not require a full workday be spent at a designated facility.  As more and more data is gathered directly onto computers that can transmit this data to any location, fewer people will be required on-site. 

The second major trend driving location independence is the growing expectation that we can be reached any time of the day (or night) and that business can be transacted at all hours and all locations.  This has the good side for taking care of urgent – and sometimes not-so-urgent – matters, but also a bad side in that we cannot plan on any quiet time or vacation time.  We are unwittingly becoming full-time slaves to our communicators and computers.   Our only break from this is to add entertainment features to our portable electronic gadgets. 

Thus, the avalanche to “wearable electronics” is beginning to thunder down the technology slopes.   Ever more capable communicators, portable GPS locators with enhanced features about restaurants and shopping locations, internet appliances with free access everywhere, and yet other devices that we can only begin to envision at this early stage. 

What will, of course, be a common need for all these wearable electronic devices will be displays that are bright and sunlight readable, displays that can show all of this information with good resolution, and displays that consume relatively little power.  There is nothing currently on the technology horizon to indicate that battery storage capacity will increase by orders of magnitude in the coming decade so that displays will have to become more efficient to satisfy the power needs of all this information flowing into our wearable devices. 

We have reached maturity in the development of displays for desktop computer and television applications.  Over the next few years, the displays for these applications will see continued incremental improvement and further cost reductions, but will not change all that much in their basic performance capabilities.  However, for “wearable electronics” the opportunities are virtually unbounded.  Much remains to be done with readability under all lighting conditions, power consumption, and form factors.  Flexibility and conformability are just beginning to be addressed and, to my knowledge, there are no products for consumer use that have been introduced with flexible or conformable displays.   There may even be opportunities for miniaturized projection technologies in this wearable electronics arena. 

Therefore, we can expect “wearable electronics” to be a major opportunity for the display community over the next decade.  The Apple iPhone is perhaps the first irrationally exciting product that will get other manufacturers to recognize just how big and important this market segment can become.

Should you wish to send me your thoughts on this subject, or perhaps others, using your portable communicators of course, you can reach me by e-mail at, by phone at 425-898-9117, or through a still location-dependent fax machine at 425-898-1727.