Liquavista is based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands and was founded in 2006 (a spin-out from Philips Research Labs). They have developed a new type of display technology that can operate in transmissive, reflective or transflective modes, has a great optical performance and is very efficient. Liquavista's display are based on the principle of Electrowetting (when a voltage is used to modify the wetting properties of a solid material). With Electrowetting displays, a simple optical switch is obtained by contracting a colored oil film electrically.
Johan Feenstra, Liquavista's CTO, was kind enough to answer a few questions we had. Johan joined Philips Research Labs back in 1999, where he co-invented Electrowetting displays and co-founded Liquavista.
Q: Johan, can you explain Liquavista's three product families?
- LiquavistaBright: monochrome display with improved optical performance compared to existing readers, while providing a seemless UI (iPhone-like) or even videos.
- LiquavistaColor: full-color reflective version with video rate, so also seemless UI
- LiquavistaVivid: Hybrid version with a highly reflective, low power monochrome mode and a full-color mode with saturated colors. The color is made with so-called Field Sequential Color Mode, so no color filter, but a fast switching Red/Green/Blue backlight.
Q: Why do you offer both color and monochrome displays? Isn't it better to focus on color at this stage?
Clearly being able to offer full-color is a big differentiator w.r.t existing technologies. The transition from monochrome to color is relatively easy for our technology. We feel, however, that the monochrome version already has significant user benefits in the much faster UI and the improved optical performance. Our expectation is that the market for people that want to simply have a monochrome reader for reading books will stay for quite some time still. Main trend in this area will be price pressure, driving the price of such readers down pretty rapidly. Given the fact that electrowetting displays have the same cost structure as LCDs and can be made in the same fabs means that we are ideally positioned to follow this expected price erosion, or even drive it.
Q: In what sizes do you plan to launch your displays?
We have a licensing business model, so final product choices will not be made by us, but by our commercial partners. However, electrowetting display technology is very scalable, so will support all diagonal sizes that currently exist in the market.
Q: Who will manufacture the actual displays?
In our licensing business model, we will transfer the technology into existing LCD manufacturing facilities. The displays will therefore be manufactured by companies that have such facilities, i.e. the well-known display manufacturers.
Q: Back in CES, you showed your color e-paper displays, and you said you expect product announcements in 2010/11. Any updates on this?
Thanks to the compatibility with LCD infrastructure, supply chain and manufacturing, we can drive this technology to market at an unprecedented pace. Current planning is still in line with earlier communications.
Q: How does your Electrowetting displays compare with e-paper on power usage? Do they always consume power even when the image is not changed?
Electrowetting display in its current form are not bi-stable. This means that for applications where the image is not changed in a long time, electrophoretic displays will be consuming less power. However, even in a reading mode, an electrowetting eReader would have a couple of days battery life. Not being bi-stable allows us to retain video speed and (many) gray scale capability, allowing people to be much more interactive with their eReader. In these modes of operation, the electrowetting reader will be much more power efficient than an electrophoretic display (even if the switching speed of the latter would be fast to enough to support such a mode). In addition, we can scale our frame rate down to very low values for static content, thereby also achieving a very low power consumption.
Q: How green are the LiquaVista displays? Can you tell us if they contain any heavy-metals (such as mercury) in them or is such metals being used in the production process?
Very green. Not only by their strongly reduced power consumption wrt LCD (2 to 3 times reduced for transmissive display, up to 10 times better for a reflective display), but also thanks to the materials we use.
Q: How does Liquavista compare with E Ink in regard to eye strain?
Very similar. Most eye strain comes from looking at a backlit display, as this has a constant intensity, even in varying light environments. Highly efficient reflective displays scale their light output to the ambient, just like paper.
Q: Your last investment was in September 2009. Will you require more funding?
We will need more investment to keep accelerating our go-to-market efforts. Our present investors are very committed to go all the way.
Q: We know you are working with TI and Freescale on e-reader prototypes and dev-kits. Any news in this front?
That’s correct. We’re very happy to be working with both. The ease with which both platforms can be combined with electrowetting displays is another testimony for the compatibility of our displays with existing supply chain.
Q: The largest market for your displays is probably the e-reader market, currently. What do you think are the main challenges in the e-reader market?
Although the eReader is our current focus and is a very interesting and rapidly growing market, I don’t believe this is our biggest target market. Given the fact that EWD is transmissive, transflective or reflective, all with an improved optical performance with a factor of 2 to 3 w.r.t. LCD, I think there are many other, much larger markets available for EWD’s once we have matured the technology through eReaders: EWD’s can also be used in mobile phones, netbooks, laptops or even tv’s in due time.
Our largest challenge (as for many other emerging display techs) will be to bring this technology from its current, relative immature, state to a full-scale mature technology. The resemblance with the LCD processes and the re-use of the existing infrastructure will be a big help to achieve this.
Q: The Apple iPAD is also trying to take on the e-reader market, but with an LCD display. What are your thoughts on the iPad? Will it succeed as an e-reader?
There are plenty of Apple adapts (I’m allowed to say this, as I’m typing on my MacBook Pro), so I think this product will be successful. It may not cover the eReader market, as the display that is used has limited readability, especially in outdoor conditions and also the power consumption is high, due to the backlight. Combining the advantages of LCD (video, color, interactivity) with those of E-ink (readability and low power consumption) in a single display is what we can do with our electrowetting displays.
Q: Where do you see Liquavista in 3-5 years?
As a very successful licensing business that has managed to get a host of display makers and product makers signed up to this technology. Having introduced the technology very successfully in the eReader market, we then will have, together with our multitude of partners, driven the technology to become a mainstream technology that is challenging LCD in many areas and aspects.
Johan, thanks again for this interview, and I wish both you and Liquavista the best of luck!