Sony’s Corporate Distinguished Engineer, Kazumasa Nomoto,
Honored with SID Fellow Awards

Jun 24, 2021

Sony’s Corporate Distinguished Engineer Kazumasa Nomoto has been named an Fellow and honored at the 2021 SID Fellow Awards by the Society for Information Display (SID), the world’s largest industry organization for displays. The distinction of SID Fellow is conferred upon individuals who have contributed to technological innovation and the advancement of the display industry. Nomoto was recognized for his contributions in advancing the display field with his work on the world’s first foldable/rollable OLED display driven by organic TFT, and flexible electronic paper. We spoke with him, about the story leading up to this award, and to hear his thoughts on future advancements in display technology.

  • Kazumasa Nomoto, Ph.D.

    Distinguished Engineer
    Sony Group Corporation

Current duties and career record

Currently, I’m in charge of technology management at the Sony Group Corporation R&D Center, where I’m involved in developing technology for new displays. At Sony, I’ve been appointed as a Corporate Distinguished Engineer. I also serve as the leader of the Device and Materials Strategy Committee within the Technology Strategy Committee. In these roles, it is my mission to promote cooperation across the Sony Group as well as to establish technology strategies and support personnel training. In particular, I focus on human resources development since that is the key to creating new technologies. My duties are not limited to in-house tasks, however. I serve as a mentor at a university, where every Saturday a small group of outstanding students from various disciplines gather together to discuss social issues.

I was named an SID Fellow due to contributions I have made to the field of displays utilizing organic electronics. First though, I’d like to talk about how, I, originally a physics major, first discovered organic chemistry.

When I was a boy, I was raised in a suburban area with a lot of greenery, and I loved bugs so much that people used to call me the “Insect Professor.” I was already interested in science at this time, so I read any kids’ science magazines that I could get my hands on, and by the time I reached the upper grades of elementary school, I was fascinated with astronomy and space. In junior high school, my father bought me a Sony radio and I fell in love with listening to overseas broadcasts. This was my first encounter with a Sony product, and memories of this time are actually one of the things that inspired me to join Sony.

In college I majored in physics. I first learned of quantum mechanics in class, where I was completely mesmerized by its mystique and beauty. In my senior year, when students were assigned to specific laboratories, my first choice was the theoretical physics laboratory. Unfortunately, however, there were fewer seats available there than applicants. Students had to roll the dice when deciding on a department, and I ended up in the organic conductor structure analysis laboratory—the absolute last place I wanted to be. Actually, the reason I decided to major in physics was in part because I was bad at organic chemistry, so I couldn’t believe my bad luck when I ended up in the organic laboratory of all places. This was my first encounter with organic science, and the moment the first step in my career as a researcher was decided.

The moment when the dice decided my fate at the lab assignment meeting (1988, Keio University)

Although ever since there have been many eventful episodes, looking back I can see that each point connects to the next, and entering that organic lab was precisely the first “point” on the line leading to where I am today.

For my master’s degree, I transferred to the theoretical physics laboratory, where I was able to immerse myself in the study of quantum mechanics. I wrote five papers during my two-year master’s program, and I took pride in my results as a researcher, so I was very conflicted on whether I should continue working toward a doctoral degree or look for work at a company.

It was then that I learned a computing device utilizing quantum mechanical effects were being researched at Sony Corporation. This was the initial stage of research and development into what we currently call quantum computing. I was interested in being able to apply my love of quantum computing in research and joined Sony in 1991.

In order to engage in my desired course of research and delve deeper into my studies, I became a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through Sony’s study abroad program. Thanks to this opportunity, I was unexpectedly able to complete my doctorate degree in physics, which I had given up on after much agonizing.

Nomoto as a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1999)

Returning to Japan after my time at MIT marked my ninth year at Sony. Around that time I, having been involved solely in fundamental research, began to be more interested in doing research that was closer to bringing products to market. So, I raised my hand and volunteered to transfer to the business group that was in charge of semiconductors at the time, where I engaged in developing semiconductor non-volatile memory. After about three years of development and studying a great deal, prospects took shape for bringing to market the memory structure I had conceived of, and I had opportunities to speak at some of the major international conferences such as the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM). Then, after having reached a certain point, I wanted to challenge myself to develop some technology that would pioneer a completely new path in electronics, so I began searching for my next idea.

Just then, I heard at the 2000 IEDM of research results that claimed that extremely high-performance transistors and superconductivity could be achieved via organic molecules. I recalled my time in college when a roll of the dice found me researching organic conductors, and I became very interested. I decided I wanted to start a new idea of electronics utilizing organic chemistry at Sony and began research into organic electronics.

This covers my involvement with organic electronics, something that I was originally bad at but which led to my being named an SID Fellow. I guess you could say that my fate was guided by a roll of the dice.

Advances in displays using organic electronics

Later on, it was discovered that the entire set of research results, including the ones I heard of at IEDM which actually made me decide to get involved in organic electronics, was fabricated! So I had to completely reconsider the direction of my research and development from scratch.

Because Sony was the global leader in mainstreaming OLED at that time, and due to the megatrend of switching from CRT to slimmer LCD and OLED displays, I decided to begin research into applying organic electronics to flexible displays.

Our research laboratories at Sony was exceptional in that the team was composed of not just chemists but also of various other experts from diverse backgrounds. It was precisely thanks to this diversity of the team that we were able to push forward with development with such great vigor, working with various parties both inside and outside the company. In 2007, we demonstrated the world’s first flexible OLED display driven by organic TFT*1 , drawing attention from everywhere around the globe. Two years later at CES 2009, we revealed a bendable OLED display as a reference technology exhibit. Then in 2010 we succeeded in demonstrating the world’s first rollable OLED display.

Our achievements helped trigger more active research into flexible/foldable OLED displays around the world, driving practical application of the technology. Today, flexible OLED displays are used on many high-end smartphones around the world. I believe that my being named an SID Fellow is an indication of the recognition accorded to us as a forerunner in the industry in demonstrating the potential flexible displays.

Meanwhile, while working of the flexible OLED display, I was involved in developing products using flexible electronic paper. This happened from a chance acquaintance with E Ink Corporation during my overseas studies, as the company had just recently been spun out from the MIT Media Lab. That connection led to me developing products using electronic paper, collaborating with E Ink.

In 2004, Sony released the LIBRIé e-Book reader, which used E Ink electronic paper, then a product called the Reader thereafter. However, competitors began to flood the market with e-reader devices that were more cost-effective, making the business tough for us.

While at that time most e-reader devices were about six inches in size, I worked with the Reader team to discuss the situation, and we thought that there could be a need for a large-format e-reader that would allow users to read an A4 size document at full size. However, forming a display on top of glass substrate in the conventional way at a size as large as A4 would make the device too heavy to hold in the hand. So, with that in mind, we challenged ourselves to develop and bring to market a very thin, lightweight, flexible electric paper by forming TFT on a plastic substrate instead of glass.

I collaborated with the members of E Ink to promote global open innovation. We developed the drive technology (flexible a-Si TFT) for flexible electronic paper and the assembly technology for the display module, then in 2013, we launched the A4 size equivalent digital paper DPT-S1 in Japan.

Later, in a management capacity, I contributed to creating new displays by being involved with the development of the OLED Microdisplay and the Crystal LED large-scale micro-LED displays.

Over the years, I have been involved in many different types of technical development, and looking back, I realize — even without knowing it at the time — things were connected with one another and all this chain of events has resulted in the honor of being named an SID Fellow. There is a proverb that says “Opportunity has hair in front, behind she is bald.” I truly feel that believing someday each point will connect with the other, and seizing the chances the moment they present themselves, is very important.

How will displays evolve in the future?

I believe display technology plays an important role in the Sony Group’s management approach of “getting closer to people.” It is also a technology domain that directly links with what we call “3R Technology” (Reality, Real-time, and Remote), the three areas that the Sony Group is focusing on. I hope to continue contributing to enriching the lives of people and society through the development of display technologies.

In my personal opinion, the flat panel display has reached its ultimate form with the flexible display. So, going forward, I think displays will evolve in the following three directions in the future.

The first is an experience with reality. More specifically, this includes panoramic and volumetric experiences. In the domain of panoramic experiences, this would mean ultra-large displays and cave- and dome-shaped displays. I think technologies that make use of projectors will evolve in this direction. For the cave-shaped experience, at Sony we’re proposing the Warp Square, which delivers a 360° visual experience using ultra-short-throw 4K projectors. Also, in terms of the volumetric experience, we launched the Spatial Reality Display in 2020. I believe that this domain will ultimately evolve into a holographic display.

The second is mobile displays. Nowadays people look at smartphones held in their hands, but walking while doing so poses problems. In the future, devices such as high-definition VR head-mounted displays and AR glasses are promising candidates for hands-free mobile viewing experiences. These are also simultaneously devices that can provide panoramic and volumetric experiences. The key to achieving such devices is collaboration with new XR content. The Sony Group has an edge in volumetric capture technology and superb sensing-driven XR content generation technology, and the technology to stream such content in real time. I’d like to engage in research and development with the goal of creating new experiences via the XR metaverse while leveraging connections with content-related technology.

The third is reducing environmental impact. For example, an advantage of flexible electronic paper is its extremely low power consumption, and its contribution to reduced paper usage. However, the technical hurdles to creating vividly colored displays are high, and we have yet to find a decisive technology for achieving full-colored electronic paper. Currently, we’re working to develop film technology which enables users to repeatedly draw and erase images with non-contact laser irradiation using leuco dye. Right now, I’m in the beginning stages of searching for ways to create a completely novel type of high-definition full-color electronic paper using advanced forms of these technologies. At the same time, we have also started discussing in-house about how we can utilize Sony’s technologies to contribute to sustainability in a broader fashion.

Finally, it is truly an honor for me to be named an SID Fellow. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all of the team members that I have worked with over my career in research and development, and everyone at Sony and elsewhere who has supported me over the years.

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