Freeform displays initially obtained consumer attention with the introduction of circular displays. Some notable firsts include wearables such as the Android-Wear Moto 360 (originally launched in 2014) and Samsung Galaxy Watch (originally launched in 2018), and smart home devices such as Google’s Nest Thermostat (originally launched in 2011), which are far more multi-functional than their analog equivalents. Circular designs represent ideal digital substitutes for buttons, dials and knobs, enhancing the conventional user experience with augmented visual performance, touch controls, and next-gen design that introduces a feeling of luxury to classic commodities.
One commercial sector that rapidly exploited the advantages offered for organic display integration by freeform displays was the automotive industry. Although original concepts for automotive design are regularly seen in the showroom, the overall form factor of a passenger vehicle (from its framework to the configuration of its interior components) is reasonably established. This is a consequence of both roadway safety standards and consumer expectations regarding the location of the gear shift, steering wheel and speedometer. As a result, displays that can embrace any shape to accommodate a more restrictive layout offer opportunities for novel display-based automotive systems.
In-vehicle displays have typically been located in the center console, relaying digital information for navigation, infotainment and now-mandatory back-up-camera systems. Such rectangular displays have been restricted to the available space of the car interior to not encroach on other important components.
Rectangles are especially inconvenient in other sections of the vehicle, such as the particularly space- and shape-restrictive speedometer area. This obstacle has supported the longevity of analog components in this region of the vehicle, with numerous new vehicles still utilizing analog dashboard designs.
Automakers seeking to substitute analog components in the car interior for digital equivalents are paying meticulous attention to the ease with which a display can occupy the space of conventional interiors. Novel freeform displays allow designers to enhance the display space within conventional vehicle designs (over rectangular flat panel display integrations) while simultaneously supplying augmented features and user experience.
Display maker Sharp was among the earliest to demonstrate a selection of cutting-edge automotive freeform designs, comprising completely circular, dome-shaped, and bespoke displays from its booth at CES 2015. These early concepts, which applied new LCD-TFT (IGZO) technology, have inspired numerous further display makers to think about how the shape of displays can shape the future of the automotive interior.
Technology Enabling Freeform Displays
Overwhelmingly, automotive freeform displays are underpinned by LCD (liquid crystal display) technology. For anyone with any experience of LCD technology, this might appear counter-intuitive because numerous layers constitute an LCD display panel (polarizing filter films, glass substrate, liquid crystal layer, TFT backplane, backlight or reflector). Each layer requires cutting or shaping in an identical freeform pattern to generate a singular LCD display.
Nevertheless, the low expense of LCD components and LCD’s long-standing advantages in automotive display integration (durability, longevity and performance) render a freeform LCD a satisfactory solution for several automakers, even when balanced by its more complex process of cutting and assembly. Moreover, higher display production costs are likely worth the returns, as vehicles bolstered by cutting-edge freeform panels will certainly appeal to contemporary consumers.
An additional challenge associated with the use of LCDs is the conventional placement of LCD electronics (namely an LCD’s “gate driver,” which is an integrated circuit driving current to activate pixels in the display). Sharp elaborated on this concern in a June 18, 2014 press release in respect of its new freeform display concepts.
“Conventional displays are rectangular because they require a minimal width for the bezel to accommodate the drive circuit, called the gate driver, around the perimeter of the screen’s display area. With the Free-Form Display, the gate driver’s function is dispersed throughout the pixels on the display area. This allows the bezel to be shrunk considerably, and it gives the freedom to design the LCD to match whatever shape the display area of the screen needs to be.”1
Essentially, novel technologies are allowing the gate driver electronics of the LCD to move from the bezel—which supplies a row/column distribution of light-driving power to every pixel along that column or row—to the active display area immediately behind the pixels, driving power to each pixel in a far more direct and dynamic manner. These electronics undergo integration with the display’s thin-film transistor (TFT) layer in several configurations in accordance with the proposed display shape.
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