Disney Creates A Method To Turn Any 3-D Surface Into A Display

The era of flat screens as we know them could soon come to an end.

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.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.