New Display Tech Could Mean Sharper VR Headsets

10,000 PPI, anyone?

Key Takeaways

  • A new OLED technology could produce resolutions of up to 10,000 PPI, researchers say.
  • The new tech could be useful in virtual reality goggles and other small displays.
  • Samsung is working to develop displays that take advantage of the new technology, but it’s just a proof of concept in the lab right now.
Woman using Virtual Reality headset at night.
Kilito Chan / Getty Images

A newly discovered display technology could pave the way for ultrasharp smartphones, TVs, and virtual reality goggles, researchers say.

The new OLED displays were developed from existing designs for electrodes of ultra-thin solar panels, Stanford researchers, and collaborators in Korea, announced in a recent paper. The new technology could power resolutions of up to 10,000 pixels per inch (PPI) compared to the 400 to 500 PPI of today’s smartphones.

"A higher pixel density allows the display to show more detail, allowing it to more closely mimic the human eye," Stefan Engel, Vice President & General Manager of Visuals Business at device manufacturer Lenovo, whose company was not involved in the research, said in an email interview.

"However, the challenge of a higher pixel density is the necessary computing power, which is enormous. Given the computing power needed, it makes the most sense for virtual and mixed reality use cases, where a small screen is used, but can still be directly connected to a powerful PC."

Resonating Colors

The key innovation behind the new OLED is a bottom layer of reflective metal with tiny corrugations, called an optical metasurface. The metasurface can change the reflective properties of light letting different colors resonate in the pixels.

"This is akin to the way musical instruments use acoustic resonances to produce beautiful and easily audible tones," Stanford University materials scientist Mark Brongersma, one of the authors of the paper, said in a news release. "We’ve taken advantage of the fact that, on the nanoscale, light can flow around objects like water. The field of nanoscale photonics keeps bringing new surprises and now we’re starting to impact real technologies."

"A higher pixel density allows the display to show more detail, allowing it to more closely mimic the human eye."

The level of resolution that the Stanford researchers announced could be game-changing for virtual reality and mixed reality headsets, Adam Rodnitzky, COO of Tangram Vision, a company that develops software for vision-enabled products, said in an email interview.

"Traditionally, these headsets have suffered from what is called a "screen door effect," where the proximity of the display to the user’s eyes allows them to see the gaps between pixels," he added. "This not only breaks the illusion of immersion in a virtual environment, but it can also increase eye strain. An ultra-high-resolution display would eliminate the screen door effect, making these headsets much more comfortable, and much more immersive." 

Streamers Could Benefit

Currently, the highest definition display available to consumers is 1440p (2560x1440 pixels). However, for virtual reality glasses, the maximum definition only goes up to 1080p, including Facebook's Oculus Rift.

Woman on Color ink illuminating with black light.
Yagi Studio / Getty Images

"While this is fine if you are a solo gamer, people who tend to share their plays with an audience need a higher resolution," Oliver Baker, co-founder and Managing Director of Intelvita, a web, and mobile app development company, said in an email interview.

"Albeit not necessary," he continued, "many streamers prefer to serve their viewers with top quality content in high definition. Furthermore, the effectiveness of virtual reality games relies heavily on how realistic the environment is to the player. A VR device with lower graphics quality will ruin the experience for many."

"However, the challenge of a higher pixel density is the necessary computing power, which is enormous."

The new display technology isn’t quite ready to hit stores, however. In laboratory tests, the researchers have only manufactured miniature proof-of-concept pixels. Compared to the kind of pixels available on OLED televisions, the lab pixels had a higher color purity and a doubled increase in brightness compared to how much energy it uses, researchers say. Samsung is working to produce a full-size display using the new tech.

The day may be coming when virtual reality displays rival real life. Until then, you’ll have to put up with the pixelated images on an Oculus headset. Or, you know, you could just leave your house and experience the great outdoors.