In this article we will compare the differences between LCD vs LED vs OLED to determine the best display type for VR headsets. Because one of the most important factors when choosing a VR headset is how immersive the visual experience is. And while resolution, Field of View, optics, and refresh rate are crucial, the display type plays a critical role in a headset’s visual performance.
Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) works by dynamically blocking light from passing through to a panel of pixels before entering your eyes in the VR headset. LCD, then, requires its own light source and color panel to function, which comes with its own pros and cons. We will get back to this.
A significant misconception is that most think LED (Light-Emitting Diodes) differs from LCD. Technically this is true, but an LED display is an LCD that uses light-emitting diodes to provide the backlighting for the LCD technology. Similarly, microLED (µLED) is the same but with much smaller backlighting diodes that can achieve a much higher diode density and a crisper image.
Invented from LED and microLED is OLED or “organic” light-emitting diodes.
The property of these organic LEDs is they combine the light source, pixel, and light blocking into one. In essence, each pixel (OLED) is a self-sufficient generator of color and illumination. This means when the OLED is on, you can see the pixels – the display – and when it is off, it is completely black. OLED displays, therefore, have incredibly deep black and contrast levels. While OLEDs also is naturally more responsive displays.
Touted as the most used display type and oldest (besides CRT) means LCD is the most cost-effective. It is also long-lasting and more durable, typically achieving up to 60,000 screen-on hours. Likewise, because LCD has more display elements, this display type is not plagued by screen burn or dead pixels compared to OLED. However, because of these many elements mean, the display type is thicker and heavier, while the other display technologies can achieve images.
An LED or microLED back panel can produce stronger levels of luminance which translate to higher brightness levels. The problem is that virtual reality is an enclosed experience, so brightness is less important to contrast and color accuracy. Using diodes as lighting for the display also means the size can be slimmed down compared to traditional LCDs. Cost-wise, LED is somewhere in the middle between LCD and OLED.
OLED is the newest display innovation and the most expensive. However, for the higher price tag, you get a display that can be the thinnest and lightest of all the display types. OLED is also ideal for standalone VR, as it has the lowest energy consumption. The structure of OLED also means it can be bent, allowing for better viewing angles and FoV range in virtual reality. Lastly, OLED also features the deepest black levels and color contrast. For downsides, besides the cost, OLED lacks behind in bright scenes and can produce unrealistically saturated colors compared to a more natural image on LCD and LED. OLED, due to its ‘organic’ design, will also fade over time and has less screen-on time than LCD and LED.
When an image is produced, a signal is sent to a display that translates that signal into an image. HDR (high dynamic range) is a signal technology that can send more information to the display, like the range of color, contrast, and brightness. In other words, because more image information can be sent and received, the final visual performance is much more detailed.
Required to be an LED display type, local dimming segments a display’s backlighting into zones that can independently be lowered or increased for improved contrast, brightness, and black levels. In other words, see the OLED display type as each pixel/diode is its own local dimming zone.
Invented by Samsung, the quantum dot technology is used in LCD and LED displays and is a thin layer of tiny crystals that can create a wider color gamut and brightness compared to the standard pixel panel seen in LCDs and LEDs.
in many cases, when an LCD type is stated for a VR headset, it actually uses LEDs and micro-LEDs for its backlighting. This is why LCD and LED are combined into one.
LCD-LED display engines in virtual reality are an older technology and are cheaper to produce, resulting in a lower VR headset price point for the moment.
Then, LED displays produce higher brightness levels. However, this is less important in VR as the experience is contained within a closed headset and is therefore always in a darkened setting.
On almost all fronts, the OLED technology is better for virtual reality. It features deeper blackness levels which is critical, as the distance between the wearer’s eyes and the screen is much closer. Further, OLED requires the least amount of energy, making it ideal for standalone VR.
OLED enables a much slimmer and lighter profile which reduces the weight upon the wearer’s head and makes virtual reality less cumbersome.
The refresh rate potential is higher for OLED, making it easier for manufacturers to mirror real-life and increase immersion.
Lastly, the power consumption drawn in an OLED is much lower than the LED technology. Effectively, this enables standalone VR headsets’ battery life to run for longer periods.
OLED displays offer several advantages over LED technology for virtual reality headsets. These benefits include deeper blacks and contrast levels, higher refresh rates, and lower power consumption. As the technology matures, it is likely that all VR headsets will feature OLED displays, as the disparity between OLED and LED is skewed towards OLED. The reason why OLED is not seen in more virtual reality headsets comes down to price point and technology maturity.
Jakob Pii is Writer at VR Expert and currently lives in the UK. He started his career in VR gaming in 2015 and has stayed in XR since, from exposure therapy in VR to 360-degree video documentaries. He is fascinated by how emerging technologies change how we live, play and work.