In-plane sensing in microLED displays

A new performance and manufacturing paradigm for optical sensing in consumer and automotive electronic devices.

MicroLEDs are expected to bring about a step-change in the characteristics of displays deployed in the consumer and automotive electronics industries because of their valuable optical characteristics: they provide a much brighter, clearer image with much higher color accuracy as well as outstanding readability in bright sunlight. MicroLEDs are also very energy efficient. 

These properties make them attractive components for displays in products ranging from small, super-high resolution AR/VR headsets, to watches, phones, laptops, tablets, and displays in cars. MicroLEDs can even be used in large displays such as TVs and monitors.

There is another aspect of microLEDs that offers the potential to produce a great improvement in display performance and to transform the entire display functionality: they enable sensor functionality to be integrated in the same pixel plane as the RGB emitters. This is made possible by the microLED’s minuscule dimensions, and offers valuable benefits including:

  • Making sensors invisible
  • Improving their sensitivity
  • Enabling new functionality

So what are the potential uses for in-plane integration of sensing and optical emission? And what steps have to be taken to realize the potential? 


Challenges of existing OLED display sensor implementations

Traditionally, front-facing sensors in mobile devices perform functions such as display brightness control, white balancing and face authentication. These sensors have often been integrated in cut-outs in the display (bezels). The trend toward bezel-less displays means sensor manufacturers have developed sensors that can be integrated behind the display. 

In OLED displays and “behind OLED” sensing, an area where ams OSRAM is a technology pioneer, the sensors must be placed behind a display plane densely populated with OLEDs. This behind OLED sensing technology presents some implementation challenges due to the need for tight synchronization between the display system and the sensor system to avoid interference between the OLEDs and the sensors. The BOLED sensors must offer very high sensitivity to provide sufficient optical signal strength when operating behind an OLED display that has very low transmissivity (typically less than 10%). Also stacking a system with separate planes – one for the display, another for sensing – increases the overall height of the sensing display. 

Beyond miniaturization - opening up space on the display board for the integration of sensors in the plane

MicroLEDs, the next technological advance, offer an exciting combination of very small dimensions and very high brightness. To date, there is no industry-standard specification for the mechanical features of a microLED: while some manufacturers have classed devices with sides as long as 50µm as ‘microLEDs’, ams OSRAM believes such devices are too large to have a disruptive market effect. Instead, the company is using its miniaturization expertise to create chip edge lengths of 10µm and less. At this size, a microLED is so small that it is not visible to the naked eye.

In fact, RGB microLEDs are so small and can be driven at such high current that they can be widely spaced while still maintaining a very high-resolution output and high brightness. Display engineers refer to this as a low ‘fill factor’ – the ratio of total microLED area to total pixel area. A low fill factor means that there is free area around the microLEDs. While these areas are imperceptible to the human eye, they are large enough to accommodate sensor components such as micro-photodiodes (microPDs) and near infrared (NIR) microLEDs (see Figure 1). These are key components for optical sensors, where the microPDs either measure the incident light or the invisible light that was emitted by the NIR microLED and reflected by an object such as a finger touching the surface of the display.

Fig. 1: the small size of microLEDs opens up space for sensors on a display’s emitter board


New and improved sensor functions

Aside from making the sensor elements practically invisible and removing the need for the stacking of display and sensors, there is another strong advantage to the in-plane display sensing architecture that microLEDs enable. By placing the sensor components in the same plane as the RGB microLED, they gain an unimpeded line of sight through the cover glass. This can simplify the implementation of sensors that are already found in OLED displays. 

Additionally, the pixelation of the optical sensor function in a microLED display (see Figure 2) enables new use cases and sensors. 

A microLED sensing display could enable new and improved sensor functions such as:

  • Display local brightness control, where the ambient light sensing is distributed over the full display
  • Camera and display white balancing
  • Proximity sensing
  • Vital signs monitoring
  • Fingerprint recognition, which eliminates sub-systems such as ultrasonic sensing used for fingerprint recognition in today’s mobile phones. This could increase the fingerprint sensing area and reduce the height of the total sensing/display stack.
  • Touch sensing
  • Gesture recognition, by adding directionality to the sensing elements combined with computational imaging.

Fig. 2: Different sensors can share the same NIR microLEDs and microPDs, and the distribution of the components is flexible, allowing for high- and low-density areas depending on the sensor requirements. 


A new supply chain for display manufacturing

The vision for in-plane display sensing enabled by microLEDs is a simpler system architecture with enhanced sensor functionality, lower power, and lower sensor costs.  

There are still essential technical development steps to be made before this vision becomes real and in-plane display sensing is available in the first products. When sensing is integrated in-plane within the display, the optical signal chain requires a complex set of interfaces that provide connections between the RGB and NIR micro-emitters, their microIC pixel-drivers, the microPDs and their read-out circuit, signal processing circuitry, other display elements, and the device’s SoC (see Figure 3).

ams OSRAM is working to address the challenge that in-plane sensing brings by working together with technology suppliers, display manufacturers, display driver and system-on-chip (SoC) manufacturers, OEMs, customers and other stakeholders. ams OSRAM is developing the alliances, standards and specifications required to pull together the complex new supply chain that can bring in-plane sensing to the market.

Fig, 3; In-plane sensing in a microLED display involves the integration of systems and components from multiple suppliers. A new kind of supply chain is required to produce this new type of display. Three key items need to be in place to enable sensing beside μDiscretes: (1) Sensor μDriver, (2) display integration, and (3) SoC support.


ams OSRAM takes the lead in the emerging microLED market

The brilliant colors that microLEDs can render, their high contrast and their outstanding energy efficiency make these devices highly valuable across large parts of the consumer and automotive electronics markets. The possibility of integrating optical sensing functions alongside the microLED emitters can heighten the attractiveness of microLEDs in comparison to OLED displays, in which optical sensors are occluded behind the display plane. 

ams OSRAM is especially well placed to advance the implementation of microLED technology, thanks to its broad portfolio of emitter IP and its in-depth expertise in opto-semiconductor and -sensor fabrication and packaging. The supply of microLED components in high production volumes is at the heart of the company’s business and technology strategy. Due to the step-change that microLED technology entails and the difficulty of implementing in-plane sensing in microLED displays, ams OSRAM recognizes the need to create supporting systems and evolve the industry ecosystem.