When we imagine displays, we think of computer monitors and smartphone touch screens. They’re basically TVs we stick to things. The idea works well for anything already shaped like a rectangle. But nothing curved quite works—it becomes a tacky retrofit, as seen in minivans and airline seats.
Disney Research has come up with an interesting solution called Printed Optics. It’s a threaded display (basically fiber optics) embedded within an object itself—almost like a circulatory system that moves light rather than blood. Its endpoints create a display of absolutely any shape. Whereas Teddy Ruxpin had a cassette player awkwardly shoved into his back, Disney’s tech could make his whole face into a contoured display.
The breakthrough here is that Disney is printing these fiber-optic-like tubes right inside any solid form, via 3-D printing. "No one shape is any harder to make than any other. As long as it can be 3-D printed, it can be made," project researcher Karl Willis tells Co.Design.
As of now, the team has successfully printed light pipes as small as 250 microns, the diameter of a few human hairs. Each of these pipes theoretically serves as a pixel, revealing an image that comes from a source display embedded deep within the object. In essence, a somewhat traditional screen still exists somewhere (for example, Disney created chess pieces that glow from a display hidden within the board), but a screen’s rigid construction is no longer limiting the aesthetics of an object.
"The limiting factor is the resolution of the printer," Willis explains. "Right now we are in the 'B&W TV’ stage of 3-D printing. It is safe to say that going 'HD’ is inevitable."
Unfortunately, because printing fidelity is such an important factor, you can’t duplicate Disney’s work in MakerBot-level printers just yet (the researchers used a more industrial model from Objet). But truth be told, it’s the polished, commercial projects that could come of this work that are the most exciting. Imagine a screen on any object in your home. Light bulbs, coffee mugs, and Nerf guns may never be the same.