First MEMS display tablet due to arrive in six months, could it rival LCD and AMOLED?

by: Robert TriggsJanuary 17, 2014

Sharp MEMS display 1

LCD and AMOLED may be the current kings of the mobile display kingdom, but MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) is a technology that could eventually supplant them both.

Qualcomm is one of the biggest companies involved in the development of MEMS technologies and has been working on its own Mirasol display for a little while. In the pursuit of developing an MEMS based display the company has also lent some serious financial support to display manufacturer Sharp. The two have been working on MEMS together for the past year and have recently been showing off what they’ve been working on.

This display technology could be a game changer, but first let’s take a look at how it works.

Tech breakdown

MEMS has a lot in common with popular LCD displays. They share a similar backlighting structure, but rather than a white backlight filtered into individual pixels by red, green, and blue color filters, MEMS systems use a set of mechanical shutters that open and close at very high speeds.

LCD vs MEMS shutter

Above is a comparison between LCD liquid crystal filtering and a MEMS shutter. Source: Japan Tech

Rather than leaving the backlight to produce a full color spectrum (white light), MEMS displays make use of a RBG LED backlight, which flashes between red, green, and blue in quick succession. By adjusting the open and close speed of the shutters, thereby blocking and unblocking the backlight multiple times a second, individual colors can be filtered through, producing a similar result to LCD’s polarized filters.

The movement speed of the shutters and their position controls the amount of light let through from the backlight, determining the color displayed and its intensity. Clearly then, when the shutters are closed no light passes, creating a black pixel. When left completely open the eye should see a white pixel. MEMS displays can create various hues and color intensities by balancing the speed and open/close conditions of multiple shutters in time with the various backlight colors.

Sharp MEMS display CES

A close-up of an MEMS display courtesy of DigitalVersus. Note that the small shutters can create a variety of shades and how the closed shutters produce dark pixels.

As you can probably tell it’s a pretty tricky piece of technology to pull off, but it does have a few advantages over existing display types.

Is MEMS better than LCD or OLED?

It’s tough to say without comparing the displays in the flesh, but MEMS has some significant benefits on paper that make it a very interesting piece of tech.

The biggest benefit to MEMS technology is that it can allow all of the light through its filters, compared with LCD displays which can waste up to two thirds of the backlights brightness before it even leaves the display. Obviously displays don’t need to be any brighter, so this means that developers can reduce the intensity of an MEMS backlight without losing brightness, which could lead to a significant saving of battery life. Since displays are the biggest battery draining components, especially in larger tablets, MEMS is a great solution for mobile devices.

Sharp MEMS breakdown

MEMS displays also require fewer individual LEDs than OLED. This makes the technology more cost and energy efficient in certain scenarios. However the use of a backlight system could mean that MEMS will use more power on darker images, compared with OLED which can simply switch of individual LEDs.

Over the long term, image quality may also turn out to be superior to OLED as well, as there is a lower risk of the dreaded selective pixel degradation that can lead to distorted colors.

How soon?

This technology is also much closer to release than you might think. Qualcomm has already released its own Toq smartwatch which has a Mirasol display (based on MEMS). The first wave of tablets loaded with MEMS displays are due to land within the next six months, according to Sharp’s engineers. There was also a demonstration 7” tablet hidden away in a corner of this year’s CES, featuring a 1280×768 pixel MEMS display. The technology is clearly on its way.


A 1.55″ smartwatch and 7″ tablet demonstrates that the technology is viable in a range of devices, but we’ll have to see if MEMS displays can be produced cheaply at higher resolutions.

Due to the technology’s infancy and complexity, it will initially hit the market at a higher price than current LCD displays, but could offer manufactures a cheaper alternative to expensive OLED technology. I wouldn’t be surprised if MEMS becomes a serious contender to both LCD and OLED, but we’ll have to wait and see how good the technology is in the flesh.

  • pritish

    Mems “Mechanically” switches pixels on or off. Those moving parts could damage your finger (or the other way round) or could possibly in future turn out to be Shaving kits

    • Cao Meo

      and you can use it as lawn mower haha

    • anon

      You are aware there will be a glass screen between your finger and the shutters

      • Skander

        It’s a joke.. lol
        And oh the refresh rate on this display will probably be horrible.

        • Jusephe

          Yes… Turning on and off very quick… That is flicker !
          We left the flicker behind with CRT’s…. Even if we don’t see it, the eyes will get really tired quickly from such displays.

          • joser116

            I wonder if they will make any noise, or if the mechanical shutters will wear out or get stuck or something. Nevertheless, I do not think this technology will be good for flexible displays.

  • Cao Meo

    because it uses mechanical shutters I think the refresh rate will be very bad

    • thartist

      And… Instead of dead pixels, many more dead mechanical shutters. Just quietly hope not but… Sigh

      • Android Developer

        isn’t mechanical things also use more power?

        • Jayfeather787


  • youngdoll

    Well, can it BEND & TWIST like OLED??

    • joser116

      That’s what I was asking, it will be very complicated to make them do that.

    • Shark Bait

      Nope! That’s why this will replace LCD and I imagin OLED will eventually be used in flexible displays.

      Even if they could bend, the display would look odd because of shadows and varying lighting conditions

  • MasterMuffin

    If Full HD can be achieved in a 5″ screen with this technology, it should be good. It could replace LCD

  • Andrew White

    Mechanical? Reliability has to be the question.
    Sounds like their still having issues with OLED,
    failure rate versus production cost.

  • Ray

    I like the idea of mirasol.

  • Shark Bait

    Nice report! I think this is the most exciting developments in mobile tech ATM

    • Ichibanmugen

      most exciting would be battery tech for a change.. where is the revolutionary battery that will last for a month or so?? -_-

      • Shark Bait

        I agree, but nothing revolutionary exist yet. I cant wait for a super capacitor battery i can charge in seconds!

        • Ichibanmugen

          yeah agreed, the tech that you can charge in seconds is already out… Philips had this tech years ago but just not releasing it as these companies just want to keep earning more money on old tech.. yes very sad indeed

  • Jayfeather787

    It seems like an interesting concept, but I wonder how the manual shutters affect the frame rate/hertz. It seems it would take a negative impact on it because minuscule flaps have to open and close on every pixel. It also seems that it would decrease battery life.

    • thartist

      Yeah, what about battery life when even if you save on backlight, you are flapping millions of shutters say 30 times a second? :/ hmmm, i actually doubt a lot about it

    • lorenzo woodley

      currently on any given device the display is what takes the most energy to run mechanical displays are not new but this is vastly different then the

      display that was replaced by the cathode ray tube used in older tvs these mechanisms are on a very very small scale powers consumption would only become an issue with increasingly large displays

    • nik1988

      Dlp chips in projectors or rear screen projection TV’S also employ mechanical movement to tilt the tiny mirrors and they were initially advertised to the gaming crowd due to their superior refresh and lack of ghosting. They’re also very energy efficient and im not aware of any excessive fail rate. In fact I recall reading that as long as you kept replacing the bulbs when they burned out then the things would keep going pretty much indefinitely.

  • Martin Hollerweger

    I thought Mirasol uses light reflection instead of a blacklight.

    • Devon

      yep.. Mirasol uses little mirrors (hence the name), not shutters… the analysis here is crap.

  • Simon Belmont

    I guess my only worry would be about the mechanical shutters. Anything mechanical = wear and tear and will have a MTBF (mean time before failure).

    So, as long as the MTBF is fairly high (doesn’t have to be super high for consumer electronics because they get replaced fairly often), then it would be great. The technology is really interesting, though, and I look forward to in depth tests on it by folks like Display Mate.

  • Brian Dong Min Kim

    Well we have to see how it performs commercially, and see the price tag before we judge. I don’t think it’s a competiton to LCD and OLED on mobile, but on TVs, it might.
    Because of the display shutting off mechanically, it might result in thicker displays, flickering of images, lower durability, etc. If I was Apple or Samsung, I would stick with the good old LCD and AMOLED. Secondly, since Samsung controls most of the Samartphone traffic, I doubt Samsung would even bother, as AMOLED is on every flagship on Samsung’s phone.