Quantum Dots Promise Better-Than-Ever Digital Color Resolution—Will it Matter?

By Krissy Eliot

Have you ever been engrossed in your favorite episode of Star Trek on your smartphone and thought “Hey! The color of Kirk’s uniform doesn’t look pure!” Yeah, most of us probably wouldn’t think that. But with quantum dots seeping into modern displays, our viewing expectations could drastically change.

Quantum dots (QDs) are tiny semiconductors that can be easily tuned to create purer color, resulting in perhaps the most vivid display hues on the market today. They were integrated into Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX reader and into Sony televisions, with Apple products soon to follow.

“If you take your phone and take a picture of greenery outside, and then you go and look at it on the screen, the colors are not going to look quite identical,” said Paul Alivisatos, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and one of the lead scientists behind QD nanotechnology. “Your eye will know the difference, even though you may not realize it unless you pay attention to these things.”

So do we pay attention? With people spending roughly 40 percent of their waking hours looking at screens, one would think users would want the highest quality displays. But this isn’t always the case.

In past studies, UC Berkeley School of Information Professor Emeritus Nancy Van House found that when people consider cameraphone technologies, they are willing to trade superior-quality images for simpler interfaces. That’s because people use mobile devices primarily for sharing information. “The point,” she says, “is to be like ‘Look at what I’m doing right now—isn’t this cool?’”

But quantum dots are likely to succeed where other quality-increasing technology has failed, because they are inexpensive and simple. QDs are made from synthetic material, meaning scientists can cook up large vats of them more quickly and cheaply than OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes). QDs also have impressive energy-saving properties, which can increase a device’s battery life.

Finally, QDs can be integrated into pre-made technologies easily. Nanosys, a startup that Alivisatos cofounded in 2001, manufactures QD film that can replace parts in existing tablets with little fuss. In other words, it might not matter that people won’t notice—they’ll get them anyway.

Of course, QDs aren’t perfect. They contain cadmium, a toxic chemical—one of the reasons Apple passed on QDs for the iPhone 6. Also, even though quantum dots provide a richer color, sometimes they insert color erroneously. Many people who purchased the Kindle Fire HDX in 2013 complained about an annoying blue hue around the edges of their devices, which was so bad that some claimed it distracted them from reading.

Technical difficulties aside, Alivisatos anticipates that quantum dots will be widely accepted. “It may be the case that in the future Olympics, they may offer broadcasting in higher color purity, or there might be certain movies that are produced like that,” Alivisatos said. And then, he says, people will start paying attention.

From the Winter 2015 Breaking News issue of California.
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Comments

Your writer states that Paul Alivisatos is the “former director” of Berkeley Lab. To my knowledge, he is still the director and shall continue to be so until a successor is hired.
Thanks for flagging this; we’ve now corrected it.

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