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How Did Butterfly Wings Inspire Next Generation Of Cell Phone Screens?

A Qualcomm e-reader that uses one of the company's Mirasol displays.
A Qualcomm e-reader that uses one of the company's Mirasol displays.
How Did Butterfly Wings Inspire Next Generation Of Cell Phone Screens?
How have butterfly wings influenced the next generation of cell phone screens? We speak to a representative from Qualcomm about their nature-inspired mirasol displays, and discuss how the company is investing in education programs focused on biomimicry.

Cheryl Goodman will be discussing "How the humble butterfly may spark an industry revolution" tonight at 5:30 at the San Diego Zoo. For more information on how to register for the event, go to the "These Days" page on

How have butterfly wings influenced the next generation of cell phone screens? We speak to a representative from Qualcomm about their nature-inspired mirasol displays, and discuss how the company is investing in education programs focused on biomimicry.



Cheryl Goodman, director of Marketing for Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, Inc.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A few weeks ago, we had on guest from the San Diego zoo who told us about biomimicry. It's a concept in which scientists and technicians study the systems in nature for inspiration into how to solve human problems. The zoo is teaming up with accidents and schools to advance the use of biomimicry. Now, one high profile local corporation is announcing a technological break through based on biomimicry. And my guest is here to explain. I'd like to welcome Cheryl Goodman, she is director of marketing for Qualcom MEMs technologies incorporated. Good morning.

CHERYL GOODMAN: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now this break through has something to do with butterfly wings and cellphone displays. How do butterfly wings fit in?

CHERYL GOODMAN: I know. This is a crazy thing. But what Qualcom is interested in, is how can we save power so your user cellphone can last longer than four hours or 8 hours or whatever. And we know that the display is really the number one power hungry component in any device, but especially cellphones because they're beholden to a very small battery for portability reasons of so if one could implement a way to create light in a color in a display in a nature based way, you're going to off set the power requirement in the hand set. So what we have done is a few years ago, innovated using cues from nature, using biomimetics, a way to create a mobile phone display that uses the natural light in the room to create color.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. Okay. Tell us how the light is created now on most cellphones.

CHERYL GOODMAN: Yes, it's actually create a count intuitive process. Standard displays use a toxic mixture of many multiple layers of films, of lighting, and this cross section of multiple materials. And what has to happen is these lights on the back light actually have to force their way through this liquid crystal, and only six percent of the light is emitted out to the human eye. So in our display technology, what happens is instead of fighting the sun, instead of -- we use a reflective material on our microelectrical mechanical based design, we use reflectants. And so we harness the sun, and so the light is actually emitted out, we use interference to create the color, and it's a very simple, thin design.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I imagine since we started talking about this, this is how butterfly wings actually use the light to --


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Show their color?

CHERYL GOODMAN: Right. The butterfly and in many other examples of nature, I'll tell you, there's two types of color, there's structural color, and that's the color that we use and butterflies use, and neutral uses. Then there's colors that are pig ams. So we're not a pigment base. But a standard display technologies actually are. So the fact that we're leveraging just that natural light in the ambient environment, and we're using reflectants, it really allows us to use much less materials, and really the key point is extend the life of the phone. But really use very small, thin batteries. And at the end of the day, batteries are a toxic material. So we want to use as little of that material as possible.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Cheryl Goodman, she's director of marketing for Qualcom's MEMs incorporated of we're talking about the use of biomimicry, studying nature to see how we can do things better and solve human problems. We're talking about the new mirasol displays. How did someone notice this and how long have you been working on this?

CHERYL GOODMAN: This is really a great thing. One of the original innovators in this space had actually spent some time saying if you could take a cue from nature, if you could mimic the light that we know exists in this spectrum and just in the general outdoor environment, if you could tap that somehow, fundamentally, you would save yourself a lot of costs and materials. So this has been a concept in this particular person's mind, and this was a company called ira dine with a handful of engineers that innovated this, and Qualcom as an early investor had spent a lot of time bringing this pas along. So it's been a long process, and research, and we're so excited because we're nearing commercialization of this technology. That is the beauty of biomimicry, not just taking cues from nature and building things but being able to have an economic impact. These are less costly devices because you're using less materials and you're not fighting nature, you're working with it. It is ultimately a fiscally good idea, but it's also environmentally a good idea.


CHERYL GOODMAN: It is definitely greener. And when you think about the number one consumer portable device in the world, it is cellphones. So there's four billion in the marketplace now, imagine if you could cut in half the power that these devices use. And just a very conservative estimate. By using a Mirasol display, it would save at least 50 percent of inquire battery budget. So a phone that would normally last eight hours now is gonna last 16. And we're see know even greater optimizations. It's very promising of it's about how can you save more power, less batteries, and les power off the grid.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How does it change the look of the display itself?

CHERYL GOODMAN: It's a very beautiful esthetic. I don't think there's any complaints from anyone about how nature mimics color. And we use the same principle. So the color that you see in a butterfly's wings, this iridescence, that's the esthetic that a Mirasol display has. And it's really quite lovely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Does it also help you see the display in areas where it would be sometimes difficult to -- since it uses the sunlight, it doesn't fight against the sunlight.

CHERYL GOODMAN: I'm so glad you brought that out. That's a major part of why use ares would be excited for a Mirasol display. So instead of fighting the sun, we're reflecting that light back. So typical displays, they have to really crank up that back light, and it's a real drain on the bay radio. And what we do is just simply reflect it out. Ours is a reflective display, it has the same contrast as I newspaper, so whenever you can read the wall street journal is where you can read I Mirasol display. Which is phenomenal, because we're everywhere with our devices. And it certainly would be nice to access content in every location.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Cheryl Goodman, I have been introducing you as -- what is MEMs technologies?

CHERYL GOODMAN: MEMs is micro electrical mechanical systems. And that's really at the heart of -- interference creates our color. But there has to be a cavity in which to contain that color. It's a micron scale optical resonant cavity. That means we're able to capture that light and modulate it, so at a very small level on the microelectrical mechanical system would give you blue, a greater distance of green, and so forth. So this modulation is actually determining the spectrum of light, or the color that's gonna be viewed by the user.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I was reading that there's initially from some companies some resistance to the use of biomimicry, because where it starts is so different from where typical technology starts. People are afraid that it can't be incorporated into existing technologies, that you're gonna have to start from scratch with a whole new concept for something. But what you have -- are telling us is that you have incorporated it on cellphones not completely overturning the entire way these things are made, but others are incorporating this new technology.

CHERYL GOODMAN: Right, Maureen, you're absolutely right. Mirasol displays are created using nearly the same equipment sets as a liquid crystal display. So we're still using industry standards but what you're saying is, do you really need all these materials and what queues in nature can you use to leverage your over all value proposition? . If industry leers look at the return on the investment long-term, if they look on the impact in the environment, then if they look at that really this is not counter intuitive design, it really is for the greater good. And so biomimicry is certainly, I think in its early stages, and folks like the San Diego zoo and Paula Brock, the SFO of San Diego zoo are real leaders in this space that are drawing that connection to the CEOs that really is a financial decision at the end of the day. This is really about creating more revenue. So the long view is definitely the stance we hope leaders take.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I was gonna make that point. Qualcom is definitely a for profit corporation so they're not taking on these mirasol displays simply because it's a greener idea. How is it more profitable for Qualcom to do this?

CHERYL GOODMAN: Well, when you think about what it takes to create a phone. And we don't create phones. We enable those that do. But when you think about what it takes to create a phone, it really takes many different parts, and the key, the Achilles heel to all devices is really the bas battery. If you can use a 250 miliamp battery over an 850 milliamp battery, you're not only saving on cost, you're saving on what's going into the landfill, but you're saving -- you're driving thinner, lighter weight designs and devices. This is what it's really about is really can you appeal to the consumer in an esthetic way, can you give them more battery life, can they see their content outside, everyone wins. Mother nature's happy, Qualcom's happy, San Diego zoo's happy, and everybody flourishes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know you're investing in a program at UC Berkeley to find out more about biomimicry, where do you see this program going for Qualcom.

CHERYL GOODMAN: Well, it is -- I think at the root of biomimicry, it is really about education. Of engineers need to take more biology classes to put it very fundamentally and very simply that we have as you alluded to earlier, we get in these typical cycles of how things should ham. How innovation should happen. And we're saying take a step back. And this really is an educational process. Yes, we're sponsoring a course at UC Berkeley, on biomimicry. But we've also gone so far as to take it down to the elementary school level. We've sponsored a butterfly park in the oldest elementary school in Taiwan. So it's global effort and it's an effort that spans all areas of education and we certainly have a lot more work to do. But we certainly believe that this is really an educational proposition at the end of the day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you've started a program in an elementary school in Taiwan, and what's the hope? What is the ambition? What do you hope to inspire in these very young students with a program like 234.

CHERYL GOODMAN: Well, you hope that they don't look at existing infrastructure as an inspiration. That they really look at the surroundings around them. How can you design in a very nature based way, it sounds very simplistic, but it really is quite simple than it is to remove looking at how things have been done in the past and say, what is nature's grand design here? And the essence of biomimicry is the science and art of emulating nature's best biological ideas to solve human problems so that's really at the essence of it. How can we look at things differently? Because believe it or not, mother nature's she's been doing it right for a really long time. So we might want to acknowledge her now and again.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know that you are also partnering in a way with the San Diego zoo to get out this idea.

CHERYL GOODMAN: Right, right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, since we've been talking so much about the mirasol displays on cellphones, when are people gonna get a chance to see these.

CHERYL GOODMAN: Well, we've commercialized the mirasol display in Asian countries so they are out and about and available. But what we're really going to start seeing, consumers are going to start seeing are these e-reader tablet devices. And this is really a twice that is really going to compliment how mirasol display works because we have that same reading contrast as news print. So it really is this experience of being able to read as we had mentioned in any environment. But these devices because they use mirasol displays are gonna be lighter than really anything else that's out there, in addition to the viewability. And unlike other e-reader technologies that exist today, we have beautiful color, we run multimedia, and it's really a really beautiful functional experience.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And are these e-readers on the market yet.

CHERYL GOODMAN: We're shipping on our partners now. And be what you'll start to see in the first quarter and second quarter of next year is multiple devices. So when.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So when people come across an exceptionally beautiful display on an e-reader they can say that comes from butterfly wings?

CHERYL GOODMAN: Yes, they surely can. And we have to thank mother nature for all of her help in this project.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for coming in and explaining all of this to us.

CHERYL GOODMAN: You're welcome.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Cheryl Goodman, marketing director of Qualcom MEMs incorporated. You've been listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two of These Days on KPBS.