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Innovation doesn't guarantee success: Mirasol's market journey

The recent news that Qualcomm would no longer manufacture its bio-inspired Mirasol e-reader display technology came as a shock even to an industry used to turbulence.

Qualcomm CEO Paul E. Jacobs delivered the sobering announcement in a teleconference with communications industry analysts in July 2012 amid generally good news from the rest of the operations of the powerhouse chipmaker. Qualcomm would still make and sell Mirasol technology as certain other, unnamed applications, but the company's high-stakes bid to capture the e-reader/ tablet display market seemed over. This strategy was, in Jacobs' words, better aligned with "addressable opportunities."

The Mirasol display technology had been one of the most visible examples of bio-inspired design in the technology sector. Based on the principles of structural color, and manufactured using traditional silicon chip methods, the reflective display had been marketed as an energy saver that would yield a rich color display when used in full sunlight.

Industry insiders had watched for years for the product to break out of its demonstration phase box and gain market share in the fiercely competitive personal device industry. The news that Qualcomm would no longer make its own innovative product heralded a significant shift in the race to dominate the technology for this market.

What happened to the promise of this biomimetic technology is a lesson in the challenges faced by any who introduce innovation to a dynamic, consumer market. The story holds particular instruction for those whose inventions are based on nature.

How Mirasol Works

Structural color is formed from the diffraction of select, colored light waves off a nano-surface, rather than the absorption and reflection of so-called white light by a colored pigment. Typically, natural light is broken up or diffracted by a surface and the jumbled wavelengths of the constituent colors in the light are bounced away at different angles. Some of these wavelengths interfere with each other and some do not. The resultant color that one sees is from those wavelengths that were not cancelled out by this interference.

This kind of color can be seen in many examples in nature: peacock feathers, beetle thoraxes, seashells and oil slicks. One champion of this natural brilliance is the Morpho butterfly, Morpho rhetenor, an insect with shimmering, electric blue wings. The intense color of its wings is directly attributable to the geometry of their surfaces, and so is known as "structural color."

The Morpho butterfly wing surface is anything but uniform. It is made of tiny scales which in turn have ridges, which have sloping shelves or ridge lamellae with as many as 10-12 layers. The spacing between the ridges is in the range of 0.5 to 5 microns, while the gaps in the lamellae are measured in nanometers. The scale of these gaps is a critical match to the color wavelengths. The visible range of light extends from the red wavelength of 700 nm to the violet wavelength of 400nm when measured crest to crest.

Natural white light hits this nano-stack of shelves at different depths, and so its different component colors are bounced back different distances, and therefore arrive back at different times. Some reflected colors are in sync, or phase, and some are not. Those that are not will cancel each other out; this is called "destructive interference." Those that are in phase will make an even brighter color. The intensity of the color on Morpho's wings is a result of this in-phase reflection of the blue light broken up by this diffraction grating.

Qualcomm uses a so-called IMOD (interferometric modulation) technology to create its color. The technique adjusts precisely the color wavelengths that will be cancelled out by interfering with each other. The remaining color is what one sees. MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical structures) structures are key to producing the effect.

To do this, two plates are sandwiched with a tiny separation between them. A thin-film stack on a glass substrate is above a suspended reflective membrane. When an electrical charge is run through the array electrostatic attraction brings the plates together. All the light colors except ultraviolet are absorbed and one sees black.

When the charge is released, however, one of three width gaps results, corresponding to the red, green or blue wavelengths. Combining these shown colors in a pixel array can create any color desired. These plate gaps can be adjusted one thousand times a second. The technique is bistable, and therefore uses low power; energy is used to make changes but not maintain states.

Although the ultimate solution known as Mirasol technology has been generally compared to the butterfly, the technological development of it had come from the adaptation of silicon chip manufacturing technology to MEMS devices and the study of the basic physics of light wave interference. The form of the butterfly's stacked shelves was not mimicked, nor was its hierarchy of scale, but it was a model that showed that the color effect could be achieved at the nano-scale.

Mirasol's Path to Market

The technology for the Mirasol color display was not developed originally by Qualcomm, but by Iridigm, a small startup that Qualcomm bought in 2004, for $170 million. Iridigm was founded, circa 1995, by Mark Miles and Erik J. Larson, two former classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Iridigm had developed a workable, paradigm-busting innovation in the form of some crude prototypes, but after several years of bump-along development with very little capital was making slow progress. One of their investors from San Diego offered to buy the company outright. It was Qualcomm.

Qualcomm renamed the operation the Qualcomm MEMS Technologies unit and spent nearly four years developing its screen technology, now dubbed Mirasol. It was presented as an alternate to Pixel Qi and Color e-Paper, competitive technologies based on entirely different paradigms. The plan was to introduce an era of low-power color displays for smartphones, tablets and e-readers with a device that could be read in full sunlight.

It was a crowded and dynamic field with a range of competing technologies typifying a new industry with clear profit potential. In 2009, approximately 4.9 million e-readers were sold and the projected compound annual growth rate was reckoned at a saliva-inducing 58 percent. The introduction of the Apple iPad in April 2010 made the trend toward an integration of capabilities seem inevitable. Consumers now expected what manufacturers soon would be able to deliver: Internet, video, color graphics, text, all delivered with speed on a mobile, intuitive device. Market acceleration was being driven by the widening availability of content and the introduction of more and more hardware and software, which made it easier to access.

With this trend toward capability convergence came a shift in the criteria for success. Users now would want to read, browse the web, watch a movie and communicate in voice and text on one device that would also tell them where they were and how to get to where they were going. Balancing these capabilities in a successful, optimized package seemed to have become the game. Within this technology-driven market, contention was fierce because no one technique could do it all: provide low cost, long life, rich color, viewability and speed. There were five main competitors to IMOD:

Liquid Crystal Display (LCD). The clear leader in the overall display market, LCD has most of the main brands, including the iPad, using it. It is an emissive technology that offers bright colors, but uses more energy and appears washed out in bright sunlight.

Electrophoretic Display (EPD). Typically, EPDs employ millions of charged capsules suspended in a clear fluid between two parallel electrode plates. When a charge is applied to the pixels within the plates, positively charged capsules show white and negatively charged capsules show black. Most e-readers, including the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader and the Barnes and Nobel Nook, used this technology. E-ink since has developed the E-ink Triton, an EPD with a overlain color filter.

Transflective LCD-Pixel Qi. This is a traditional LCD with an additional operating mode, a low-power, reflective monochrome display. The device uses either a backlight and polarizer when in LCD mode, or reflection when in the so-called e-paper mode.

Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED). An OLED is a light-emitting diode made up of multiple layers of different organic semiconductor materials with electroluminescent properties. The power draw of the display is directly proportional to the brightness of the image, and the need for several transistors at each pixel reduces the light aperture and increases the need for power and a more complex design. OLEDs are used in a variety of cameras, phones and small televisions.

Electrowetting (EWD). EWD uses three optical modes (transmissive, reflective and transflective) and colored oil as an optical switch that moves with changes to electric potential across two electrodes. Liquidvista was the industry leader in this technology, but was still planning commercial products in 2010.

When Qualcomm acquired Iridigm, it had what it thought was a disruptive technology that would be both cheaper to operate and to make. "The convergence of consumer electronics products, including cameras, MP3 players, camcorders, GPS receivers and game consoles, into wireless devices is driving the increased adoption of 3G CDMA," said Paul Jacobs, then executive vice president and president of Qualcomm's Wireless & Internet Group, in a statement. "Our acquisition of Iridigm will accelerate the time to market for the iMOD technology, which fits Qualcomm's overall strategy of rapidly increasing the capability of wireless devices while driving down cost, size and power consumption."

The company built a state-of-the-art research and development facility in San Jose, Calif., and spent years perfecting the manufacturing technique. In 2009, it entered into a joint venture with Foxlink (Cheng Uei Precision Industry Co.) to manufacture the display. Development dragged on, and in 2011 the advertised first quarter launch of a Mirasol e-reader was postponed, and, that summer, cancelled. CEO Jacobs was not happy with the product they had, and said that they would "focus on the next version of it." Mirasol was getting a reputation for being "perennial vaporware," and rumors of production problems were afoot.

In November that year the company announced its plans to build its own fabrication plant in Taiwan, and planned to commit $975 million to the effort, with production scheduled for 2012. A limited run of 5.7-inch displays was made for the Kyobo e-Reader of South Korea. In all, four Asian companies ordered the display: Havon, Bambook, Kyobo, and Koobe. All of these readers or tablets were built on the Google Android OS platform.

By early 2012, Qualcomm had acquired yet another display startup and yet another technology. This time it was Pixtronix, Inc. of Andover, Mass., for a reputed $175 million to $200 million. The company had developed a low-cost display technology prototype called PerfectLight. The display was activated by a MEMS-based digital micro shutter that modulated light from an RGB LED backlight.

This emissive technology was a marked contrast to the Mirasol reflective mechanism, and, at least on paper, had some qualities that Mirasol did not. A high switching speed made it applicable to full-speed video as well as e-reading. Pixtronix claimed that the display offered greater than 170-degree viewing angles, more than 3,000:1 contrast ratio and 24-bit color depth. Mirasol had compared unfavorably to LCD readers in color presentation, viewing angle, contrast and video refresh speed. Moreover, Pixtronix was claiming to use only one-fourth of the power consumption of equivalent size and resolution liquid crystal displays.

In the summer of 2012, Jacobs made his announcement to the industry analysts. Qualcomm, despite having just spent $700 million on a fabrication plant and eight years in development, would cease production of the Mirasol e-reader display.

The IMOD technique of extracting color from white light without the use of much energy is still a very innovative and potentially useful device. Profitable applications for it, however, seem to lie outside of the current, mainstream mobile device market. Bright color and speed seem to have trumped energy saving and sunlit viewing, but there are other possible reasons why Mirasol did not fly as high as expected.

Although the market had been driven by technological innovation and filled with hopeful contenders, there was still a significant entrenchment of interests. LCDs were more firmly established with the large players such as Motorola, HTC, Samsung and LG. While production uncertainties were to be expected with Mirasol, the manufacture of LCDs was well understood while still allowing for improvements.

Mirasol's Obstacles to Success

During the long development of Mirasol, the entrenched LCD contenders had become more competitive by reducing semiconductor power consumption, making batteries lighter and switching their backlighting from CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamps) to LED. While the logic of the need for power saving was still sound, it seemed to become less critical and less of a counterbalance against some shortcomings of the Qualcomm product.

Similarly, over this development timespan, the requirements for devices had changed: converging capabilities, although foreseen by Qualcomm, created a wider range of performance criteria and raised the bar on metrics such as video refresh speed. Each technology contender had to optimize its overall performance, and no one technology seemed to do it all. This appeared to create a game in which performance below adequacy in any criteria could mean the end of contention. Mirasol, reputedly, could only run 60 Hz video, and that drained the battery that the technique was supposed to be conserving.

Cost of production was critical to success and ultimately would be weighed against value gained by any potential clients for a display screen. For example, the EPD technology, described above, rules the black and white world of e-readers, with 95 percent of the non-tablet market.

Although likely to be replaced by multi-functional devices such as tablets, e-readers have been successful because they appeal to the user with a clear image, wide viewing angle, reflective character and longer battery life. They are also very affordable. The main reason is that they can be manufactured using a roll-to-roll printing technique, in which a substrate can be spray-coated, micro-embossed, filled and sealed and then cut to shape; all in one continuous production sequence.

The production of Mirasol, by contrast, apparently has required much more precise tolerances in the laying of the glass substrate, sandwich pillars and wavelength gaps, evidenced by the need to build a $700 million dedicated fabrication plant.

The Mirasol IMOD technology as an idea continues to hold lessons for bio-inspired designers and problem-solvers. It is a great example of "surfing for free," taking advantage of natural environmental phenomena to save energy -- in this case, harvesting free, ubiquitous light for its color by a precise manipulation of form and space. It is an excellent translation of this example from the Morpho butterfly, because it mimics the principle of light diffraction without trying to slavishly replicate the means. Finally, the technique's development required the combining of several disparate ideas and processes into a totally new combination: innovation at its best.

It appears, however, that that innovation has not produced the value demanded by the wickedly mutable mobile display market. Assuredly, that market will continue to change and with that change will come a new set of parameters for success. Observing the processes of this technology market, and how bio-inspired innovations might fit within its dynamics, also will continue to be a fascinating subject.

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