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Apple is secretly working on a few breakthrough display innovations

Published Feb 10th, 2021 6:50AM EST
Apple Glasses
Image: Apple Inc.

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  • A new report says that Apple has partnered with TSMC to manufacture micro OLED displays, which could be used for Apple VR glasses in the future.
  • Apple is working on an additional project at its secretive labs in Taiwan, micro LED screens that might be used in Apple Watch, iPad, and MacBook in the future.
  • The development plans are so secret that Apple has strict non-disclosure agreements in place, and the labs have no markings that could be associated with the iPhone maker.

A report explained a few days ago one of Apple’s mysterious moves. Dan Riccio, the company’s former senior vice president of hardware engineering, stepped down a few weeks ago to take a new role inside the company. He would oversee a new product and report directly to Tim Cook, Apple said at the time. Bloomberg found out from sources familiar with the matter that Riccio would lead Apple’s division that’s working on VR and AR glasses. The same report also dropped another bit of interesting information. Apple’s chip guru Johny Srouji, whose team is responsible for the A-series chips in the iPhone and iPad and M-series chips in the new MacBooks, will now oversee Apple’s in-house displays and camera technology. Bloomberg did not provide more details about this development, but a new report sheds more light on Apple’s secret display-related efforts in Taiwan.

For years, we saw reports detailing the extremely secret work that Apple was conducting in Taiwan labs. Apple was developing new display technologies that would one day be used in various products, those reports claimed. Apple has never acknowledged those rumors.

Now Nikkei Asia has learned more details about the ongoing display development at Apple’s Taiwan-based labs. Apple is reportedly partnering with TSMC to develop “ultra-advanced displays.” TSMC is the chipmaker that mass-produces the A and M chips in Apple’s iOS and macOS devices.

Apple is apparently developing micro OLED displays together with TSMC, and the reason a chipmaker is needed for these screens has to do with the way the displays are manufactured — Nikkei explains:

Apple is collaborating with its longtime chip supplier TSMC because micro OLED displays are not built on glass substrates like the conventional LCD screens in smartphones and TVs, or OLED displays used in high-end smartphones. Instead, these new displays are built directly onto wafers — the substrates that semiconductors are fabricated on — allowing for displays that are far thinner and smaller and use less power, making them more suitable for use in wearable AR devices, according to sources familiar with the projects.

The micro OLED displays are now at the trial production stage, and it might take several years to reach mass production. They are smaller than 1-inch in size. Apple’s VR and AR glasses aren’t expected for a few more years. A recent report said the $3,000 VR glasses would feature advanced displays with 8K resolution.

Micro OLED screens are not to be confused with mini LED displays that will supposedly arrive later this year on select iPad Pro models and might make it into next-gen Macs — that’s according to different reports.

The same report says that Apple is also working on micro LED technology, which is also in trial production. This screen technology will be used in Apple Watch, iPad, and MacBooks down the road, assuming Apple’s research and development efforts pay off. These micro LED screens also involve chip-making technology, Nikkei reports:

The components are 100 times smaller than those used in LED lighting products and they do not need backlight modules like traditional LEDs and LCDs, meaning the display can be much thinner. Micro LEDs also provide high color contrast and can be used to make curved or foldable screens, similar to OLED screens.

Apple isn’t the only company studying micro OLED and mini LED tech. Most of its competitors/suppliers are also developing similar screens. Sony and BOE are working on micro OLED displays, while Samsung, BOE, and San’an Optoelectronics are also studying micro LED screen tech.

This explains the massive secrecy surrounding Apple’s in-house display efforts. The Nikkei report says that Apple’s complex in Longtan Science Park in Taoyuan “consists of several unmarked white buildings” with no logo on the outside. A “faint” apple symbol can be seen in the lobby. Apple has hired dozens of veterans from display maker AU Optoelectronics over the years. The non-disclosure agreements are so strict that they forbid employees “from even meeting with friends or acquaintances working in the tech industry, the source added.”

For the first time since 2014, since its Taiwan display project started, Apple posted on a local job platform. Apple’s job ads, released on Monday, look for applicants with “expertise in operating OLED vacuum evaporation equipment, packaging and testing equipment, and measurement equipment.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.