Samsung’s giant 146” microLED TV, named “The Wall”, was unambiguously one of the stars of 2018’s Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. The mass of people that one had to push through for a chance to get close to the display on the company’s booth was reminiscent of a rock concert “mosh pit”. It looked like every single one of the nearly 180,000 people who attended the show this year made a point of stopping by to see the display.
Samsung wasn’t alone. Korea-based LED maker Lumens had a 139” display, with smaller 0.8 mm pitch. Like Samsung’s Wall, the modular technology deployed in this display doesn’t strictly qualify as “microLED” as, in both cases, the LED chip size is larger than 0.1 mm. However, the buzz generated around the term confirmed that microLED technology is becoming one of most exciting things in the display industry since the first OLED TV prototypes emerged more than a decade ago. For the purist, Lumens was also showing a real 0.57” microLED microdisplay with 8 µm microLED chips at a 2576 pixel per inch density and more companies unveiled prototypes in private suites.
Media were quick to tout Samsung’s Wall as the first ever microLED TV. That shows a short memory, since Sony created as much buzz back in 2012 when it showed the real first microLED TV, a full high-definition 55” prototype called “Crystaled”.
Samsung’s 146” microLED TV unveiled at the 2018 CES (source: Samsung Newsroom)
Interestingly, this head start is reflected in the IP landscape, as shown in Yole Développement’s recent report “MicroLED Displays: Intellectual property landscape”, a thorough analysis of more than 1500 patents identified as relevant to the microLED field. Sony, along with Sharp and some research institutions, appear as pioneers, describing the concept of a microLED display as early as in 2000.
The overall corpus however is relatively young, with an average age of 3.2 years across all patent families. With the exception of Sharp and Sony, display makers and LED makers are relative latecomers and many companies started ramping up their microLED research and development activities after Apple showed faith in the technology with its acquisition of Luxvue. The study also identifies a number of new companies and confirms the commitment of others such as Intel or Goertek, which are not usually known for their involvement in displays.
In term of technology, the analysis reveals an activity highly focused on microLED chip transfer, interconnect and assembly problems, while other critical aspects such as defect management are falling far behind. Enabling large-scale microLED display manufacturing requires bringing together three major disparate technologies and supply chain components: LED manufacturing, backplane manufacturing, and microchip mass transfer and assembly. No one company appears positioned to master and execute across a supply chain that involves multiple complex technologies.
The IP landscape reflects those challenges through the variety of players involved. Only a few companies have a broad microLED IP portfolio, but enough players have patents on key technology bricks to predict that complex licensing and legal battles will arise if and when microLED displays enter volume manufacturing. Small companies with strong positions in certain aspects of the technology will attempt to obtain licensing fees from larger players involved in manufacturing. Large corporations will try to block each other and prevent competitors from entering the market. To prepare for such events, some latecomers appear to be filing large numbers of patents, sometimes with little substance. In any case, the battle is just starting.
(Source: MicroLED IP Displays: Intellectual Property Landscape, Yole Développement, January 2018)
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