Blinded by the light: Chicago startup’s technology saves your eyes — and energy, too

Trying to see your smartphone screen in bright sunlight is not only frustrating, it uses a lot of energy. Chicago-based Azumo is developing technology to eliminate that issue.

Founder and CEO Mike Casper recently spoke with Centered about Azumo’s work on “LCD 2.0” technology. The business launched about 12 years ago under a different name and with a different core mission. But after a couple of pivots, Azumo landed on a new goal of creating an ultra-thin light transmission technology that improves electronic device screens, which it commercialized about four years ago.

The problem: Most LCD screens are dark when they’re off and embedded LED lights turn on from the back to illuminate the screen pixels when the device is in use. It’s not a very energy-efficient process, Casper said, and a decent proportion of a mobile device’s energy consumption goes toward lighting up the screen. “Even though LCDs have been around for decades, we’ve pretty much optimized them as much as we can using old technology. It’s only allowing 7% of the light through the pixels. So 93% is wasted energy,” he said.

The technology: Azumo’s innovation is a frontlit, reflective display. The screen reportedly uses 90% less energy than a backlit screen and can run for up to a week on a single charge. It leverages ambient light around the device and directs the light to the display itself, as opposed to a backlight that beams light through the screen and toward your face.

“We can have devices that last multiple days on a battery charge and look great in the bright sun. A lot of people don’t realize this is possible,” Casper said. “This display technology looks fabulous in the sun. It is extremely bright and you don’t have to block or shadow the screen to see it. It actually looks better the brighter the sun is.” 

Hidden benefit: The light coming from LEDs in a backlit screen shines directly into your eyes. This can cause eye fatigue and is connected to sleep disruption, especially with the amount of device time the average person now racks up. Azumo’s technology lessens this effect.

“LCD 2.0 is a more natural and comfortable way of seeing the screen, by using the ambient light around you,” Casper said. “When you’re reading at night, it mutes the lighting. … If the room light dims — if you’re getting ready for bed — the device light goes in concert.” 

On being Midwest-based: Casper said most of the tech talent, manufacturing capabilities, and supply chain support Azumo needs are right here in the Midwest, which sits well with the co-founders because they all grew up in the area. Azumo essentially had to establish a new supply chain after pivoting from its previous business focus to display screens, and the regional industry strengths have lessened the burden. 

“While it was challenging to have to basically start a supply chain from scratch, we’ve been fortunate given the manufacturing base and the high-tech base in the Midwest,” he said, pointing to innovations such as optical film and roll-to-roll manufacturing that are established in the region. “There’s a lot of history here that people don’t realize within the display space and the lighting space.” 

What’s next: Up until now, Azumo’s technology has been optimized for small screens that are 5 inches or less. This year, they intend to launch tablet displays of up to 10.5 inches. The business will scale up and make new hires accordingly.

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