What the Tech?: MIT Is Working On an Advanced Transparent Digital Display

Using affordable products and some basic technology, researchers are giving the current designs a run for their money.

Displaying information on transparent screens isn’t something the 21st century hasn’t already seen. After all, GPS devices that rely on Head-Up Displays, or HUDs, are currently being used by drivers trying to navigate winding roads.

But researchers at MIT (because where else?) have taken that type of HUD technology—a feature that projects words or images on a flat glass surface—a step further by creating a new see-through display that could provide significant advantages over what’s already out there. In a paper published this week in the journal Nature Communications, co-authors Marin Soljačić and John Joannopoulos, both professors at MIT, along with MIT graduate student Chia Wei Hsu, explain how they’re developing the latest advancement in how we project information:

“If we can actually project images onto [glass], then you will enable much more opportunity. Where you can now project onto the window of the store…[you] can display information of the products inside, or you can project images onto an office window or the windows of the subway train,” said Wei Hsu of the project, which was partly funded by the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation.

Possibly a new approach to advertising for the MBTA? Maybe someday. In the meantime, here’s how the researchers are able to make the images visible on transparent surfaces:

We create a transparent display by projecting monochromatic images onto a transparent medium embedded with nano-particles that selectively scatter light at the projected wavelength. We describe the optimal design of such nano-particles, and experimentally demonstrate this concept with a blue-color transparent display made of silver nano-particles in a polymer matrix. This approach has attractive features including simplicity, wide viewing angle, scalability to large sizes and low cost.

The transparent screen is really just a piece of plastic applied to a glass surface, which remains see-through, but images can be projected onto it, according to researchers. “It’s a relatively simple method, and is really cheap to…make these plastic foil displays,” said Wei Hsu.

These current examples of the display are just a “proof-of-concept,” and “much work remains to optimize the performance of the system,” according to MIT News.

But the use of this type of system, which could be helpful to anyone from airplane pilots to store owners, utilizes nano-particles that are commercially available, so bringing together a design with advanced materials could mean an even better product when they finally approach the manufacturing stage.

Steve Annear Steve Annear, Digital Writer at Boston Magazine sannear@bostonmagazine.com

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