Garmin has registered a patent today with the US Patent and Trademark office for a solar-powered OLED watch. Unlike its Power-Glass tech which goes over the display, the photovoltaic regions on this type of watch are interspersed in-between the subpixels.
Battery life is one of the most important things when it comes to something that is meant to track your health and fitness around the clock. Sure, some Apple Watch owners might disagree – but that device tries to provide the best of both worlds. It is both a fully fledged smartwatch and a fitness device.
Garmin, on the other hand, has mostly focused on the latter. To this end it has a slew of devices that can track pretty much any sports activity.
Garmin solar is only for the memory-in-pixel (MIP) display
For years the company focused on churning out devices with a memory-in-pixel (MIP) display. The benefit of that type of technology is that it is not very power-hungry, it allows for an always on screen and it has pretty good visibility in outdoor conditions.
Some iterations of Garmin watches with an MIP display also come with a solar option. The first such device was released in 2019.
The Fenix range is one example. It has Power Glass or Power Sapphire watch lenses to convert sunlight into electricity. This doesn’t act as the main source of power. Rather it is meant as a supplement to the battery. However, the tech is improving and some variants of the Instinct 2 can keep going indefinitely with solar top-ups. This makes it more than just a gimick, tech that makes lots of sense for hikers and adventurers.
You might be wondering how exactly this works. These types watches have a layer of photovoltaic glass sitting between the top layer of the screen covering (Gorilla Glass) and the bottom layer (MIP). The density of the solar cells is highest around the edges and they form a visible ring. The density needs to be much lower in other areas – otherwise you would not be able to see through the layer.
OLED watches powered by solar
OLED technology is much sharper than MIP allowing for crystal-clear graphics and maps. However it is also much more power-hungry. Garmin has a number of variants that come with such a display. This includes the Venu range and recently released Epix (Gen 2). The caveat is that these types of watches need more frequent charging.
So far, there was no point in releasing OLED watches photovoltaic variants. The patent explains why very clearly.
“Battery life is important for these devices as it is aggravating for users to stop wearing a device for recharging,” the text reads.
“Some attempts have been made to equip smartwatches with semitransparent solar panels such as by using a discrete solar cell positioned on top of (or over) the watch’s display. However, the presence of such a solar cell overlay degrades visibility of the display module. Accordingly, there is a need for an integrated energy-collecting display module that collects solar energy without substantially obscuring its display.”
Which leads to the conclusion that employing Garmin’s Power Glass technology on OLED devices would make no sense. It would degrade the quality of the display too much. So the patent describes an alternative that could find real-world use.
OLED displays consist of Red, Green and Blue subpixels. They combine to represent the full spectrum of colors. The patent details a type of OLED watch display that would disperse photovoltaic materials in-between these subpixels. Sure, there may be some deterioration in quality, but nothing like what you’d get with a full photovoltaic layer.
The tech could be utilized for watches, GPS units or bike computers. Basically any product that is used outdoors can be a candidate.
Exactly how much solar would extend battery life of a power-hungry OLED display remains questionable. But anything that has the potential to extend the time between charges has our vote. As with Power Glass, the first generation of solar OLED screens might be a gimick more than anything else. In time, however, the tech might be able to offer a real edge to those types of devices.
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