12 tech leaders’ resolutions for 2012

Reinvent the display–again

By Mary Lou Jepsen, Founder and CEO, Pixel Qi (as told to Barb Darrow)

Mary Lou Jepsen could be called the queen of screens. Her pioneering work on computer displays took her from graduate studies in holography at MIT and optical science at Brown to MicroDisplay to Intel to One Laptop Per Child. Today, she is the founder and CEO of PixelQI, where she works on creating energy-stingy, bright, and lightweight screens for laptops and smaller devices, including phones. In her view, the screens are not an after thought, they are key to the user experience.

The LCD industry is in meltdown. The losses are huge and have been for the last five years or so. It’s unclear how some of the large companies are going to make it through.

The recession’s different in the hardware industry. I think it’s much worse today than in 2008 and early 2009. For the tier one companies, it’s not about the hardware anymore. It’s about hardware, software, content. And content suppliers are king right now. A lot of the hardware suppliers won’t survive unless they restructure. It’s a bit like the airline industry. Many of the airlines we fly are bankrupt. We’re dealing with that kind of scenario. They all make the same products and compete on price. You can only do that for a number of years before the consequences get worse and worse. E-ink stands alone, as a category that is doing relatively well.

In 2011, it became apparent to the executives that they need to do something different. That made our life easier at PixelQI. Now we can get into the factories. Before it was a struggle, with us trying to say, “We know more about designing an LCD than you do.” They’d look at us and say, “How many people are you? We’ve got 50,000 people. Where’s your fab? How many engineers do you have?” For me to say, “Well, my engineers have Ph.D.s from MIT and Stanford” — they don’t care about that.

Over the course of our company’s life, we’ve shipped three million units, including the One Laptop Per Child units. No one’s ever done that before for a novel display company. It usually takes decades. We’ve shown our stuff can be mass-produced in volume and deal with the price structure inside existing factories.

We may move into the cell phone space next year, but for that we need to demonstrate volume in multiple fabs, because the volume in cell phones is so large.

We have a cross licensing deals with One Laptop Per Child. Thanks to OLPC, every child in Uruguay has a laptop. Half of the children in Peru. Huge deployments in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Forty-eight countries, 20 different languages. I think there are a few million OLPC laptops in the field. OLPC started the low-cost laptop category. Intel has several million out, too. There are $100 netbooks now that also address this market.

But the OLPC laptop is by far the lowest powered, like 10 times lower power. That really matters in the developing world, where there is no steady access, or sometimes any access, to power.

I spent more time with Nicholas [Negroponte, the MIT Media Lab founder who later founded OLPC] than my husband for a couple of years. It was an incredible mentorship, getting to see the way he approached problems and made decisions. Often when I’m stuck, I think, “What would Nicholas do?” I don’t always do it, but it gives me a different perspective on how to open up the problem.

One challenge for next year is whether the industry, our customers, find an interesting tablet that isn’t just like the iPad but cheaper. Certainly Amazon is making a go of it. The competitive landscape has been tough on our big customers, the ones in Best Buy who compete with Apple. There are a lot of products that haven’t made it.

We’re also working on some displays that will be rollable, flexible, put anywhere displays, and look better than OLED and don’t need power cables or data cables. That’s pretty cool, because then you can solve some problems in portable computing. With rollable displays you can look at more data. You can write notes in one area and view things in other areas. Digital signage needs it. TV needs it.

LCD is a bit like low-end DRAM these days and it doesn’t have to be. There’s so much more we can do to use it like we use DCMOS. With what we’re doing, we’ll show you that you don’t need batteries. Or it might be more like a watch where you might change a small battery.

I’ve also been thinking about the way we perceive images. When you see something really striking, it feels like it’s burnt on your retina. There’s some data that suggests that it kind of is. Not the retina exactly, but right behind it, on the LGN [lateral geniculate nucleus]. There’s research that shows that it’s possible to extract that information, suck it out. Two thirds of our brainpower is allocated to processing visual images. What are they? Do they look like what we think they are? Can we get those out to people? How will communication change? Will it be better, worse? Will it shock people? In the ultimate future of display technology, there is no display. We will communicate with images that are in our minds already.