Qualcomm MEMS vividly displays success

SAN JOSE, CA—Qualcomm MEMS Technologies (QMT) didn’t exist five years ago. But it has grown to have an important impact on mobile device displays—and appears to be headed for increasing significance.

QMT’s “secret sauce” is its reflective interferometric modulation (IMOD) display technology, which the company likens to the structure that enables butterfly wings and peacock feathers to iridesce. IMOD requires no backlighting and reflects light so that wavelengths interfere with each other. The display harnesses ambient light to automatically scale for easy viewing in virtually any lighting condition. And indeed the technology lives up to its billing: It offers both high image quality and resolution, and it’s easy to read even in bright daylight with polarized sunglasses. Further, it promises ultra-low power consumption, making it suitable for mobile applications.

The company had its genesis in 2004 when Qualcomm Incorporated—a world leader of code division multiple access (CDMA) digital wireless technology—acquired the privately held Iridigm Display Corporation. Iridigm had developed and patented IMOD technology, which is based on a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) structure combined with thin-film optics, and Qualcomm had recognized it as a breakthrough.

Soon after the purchase, Qualcomm announced the launch of Qualcomm MEMS Technologies as a separate entity, and in early 2005 appointed an executive leadership team made up of Qualcomm, Iridigm, and display-industry veterans. At the same time, the company announced it had signed an agreement with Prime View International, a manufacturer of small- and medium-format thin-film transistor liquid-crystal display (TFT-LCD) modules. The company considered this a critical step in commercializing IMOD. The relationship enabled mass production of QMT’s first products: bi-chrome display modules, available in various sizes appropriate for mobile devices.

Fast forward to 2007 when QMT gained a number of design wins. Ubixon (a Korean developer of “ubiquitous portable consumer devices”), Hisense (a large, professional electronics and information enterprise, located in China), Audiovox (known for automotive entertainment, vehicle security, and remote-start systems, and consumer electronics products), KT Freetel (Korea’s first WCDMA wireless operator), and Cheng Uei Precision Industry, a.k.a. “Foxlink” (a Taiwanese developer and manufacturer of communications devices, computers, and consumer electronics) all saw the light, so to speak, and selected QMT’s displays for their mobile electronics products.

So far, 2008 has seen more design wins—and even bigger announcements. And the company began using the brand name “mirasol” to reference its display products. QMT wasn’t joking when, on April 1, it announced sales to Inventec and Cal-Comp—and followed with an announcement in May about opening a dedicated fabrication plant in Taoyuan, Taiwan, in partnership with Foxlink.

QMT said the manufacturing collaboration solidifies its strategy to support volume demands for future mirasol displays, enabling the company to offer a more varied selection of products while reducing their time to market. Pointing out his company’s “significant traction in the last year,” Jim Cathey, QMT’s VP of business development, said its new manufacturing partner is a leader in supply chain management. “Foxlink has decades of experience in delivering quality, timely products for global brand leaders. They are an ideal company with which to collaborate in delivering on the promise of mirasol’s low-power, highly reflective displays,” he explained.

For its part, Foxlink—which employs more than 43,000 and operates more than 15 design manufacturing and sales sites worldwide—created a new business unit to support the production of mirasol displays. The manufacturing facility is slated to be fully operational in 2009.

QMT made its most recent announcements in late May. The company gave the first public demo of its newest display at the SID 2008 Conference, this time showing how the technology can fully deliver on the peacock feather reference: it’s not bi-chrome, but full color.

At the same time, the company said that Freestyle Audio, which claims to offer the world’s first and only “waterproof, shockproof, and virtually indestructible” MP3 player, will feature the first 0.9 inch IMOD color display in next-generation MP3 product lines. “We’re taking our award-winning Sport MP3 players to the next level,” said Lance Fried, founder and chairman of Freestyle Audio. “Like Freestyle Audio, Qualcomm places a premium on innovation,” he said, noting that he expects the displays to further differentiate Freestyle’s music players and delight customers.

—Barbara G. Goode, editor-in-chief, BioOptics World

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