Thoughts on Transparent Electronics
Published: November 28, 2011 Category: Advanced Materials Emerging Electronics

Opportunities in the area of the transparent electronics products themselves can be somewhat difficult to pick out.  This is not just because of the diversity of the possible products that can be built within the context of transparent electronics paradigm, but also because both the actual past of transparent electronics so far and the somewhat futuristic prognostications about transparent electronics that have been widely published are a distraction from understanding what can really be achieved in the next few years with transparent electronics:

Too cool to succeed:  Transparent electronics suffers, we believe, from the fact that it is so cool that it virtually cries out to be built into highly futuristic scenarios.  And this is exactly what has happened.  Just a casual look at the literature on transparent electronics—even the formal technical literature—usually reveals quite quickly a slew of references to science fiction movies in which transparent electronics are featured.  The favorite in this regard is the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” but other movies are also referenced.  This is all a lot of fun, but gives a false impression of the current state of the art in transparent electronics and what might be achieved using this technology.  Watching Cruise in “Minority Report,” it is never quite clear just why he is using transparent displays in his work.  In other words, these display are props not just in the sense that they are not physically real (they don’t actually function).  They are also divorced from market realities. 

Current apps for transparent electronics are quite primitive:  Paradoxically, the other reason why systems opportunities in the transparent electronics space can be difficult to identify is the exact opposite of the over-optimism reported on in the previous bullet point.  A quick examination of the current offerings that might reasonably be included under the heading of “transparent” electronics reveals not products that, with a little tinkering could make it into “Minority Report II,” as it were, but rather primitive niche products. 

For example, in the display space, if one looks for transparent displays, what one will find are simple passive matrix LED and EL displays which represent a tiny niche within the digital signage business; they are displays with very limited functionality.  Similarly, self-tinting smart windows have been around long enough to show that they cannot compete with a conventional window, when a customer is looking for something that enables good natural lighting and attractive views.  Or where tinting is critical to the specific application, the difference between tinted and untinted offered by a smart window is just not great enough.   Again, we are looking at products and concepts that are out of tune with market realities. 

Three Factors That Can Lead to the Commercial Awakening of Transparent Electronics

Given all this, the big question is can transparent electronics move beyond the fanciful on the one hand and low-performing niche products on the other?  In our view, there are four critical aspects of “transparency” that the design and marketing of transparent electronics products needs to focus on for it to become a serious revenue earner.   These factors are (1) aesthetics, (2) integration (3) improved economics and (4) (somewhat paradoxically), aspects of transparent materials that are not directly related to transparency:

• Other relevant drivers for transparent electronics may be discovered over time, but these are the ones that seem to matter now.

• As the transparent electronics materials suite that we discussed earlier improves, it seems reasonable to expect an increased ability of transparent electronics to compete over all and any of the three dimensions mentioned above.

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