The establishment of this prestigious laboratory is testament to the pioneering work done by the ECE Department under Prof Kwok's leadership in the field of display technology. But talk with the professor about his work in this area, and he confesses that he "stumbled" into display technology shortly after his return to Hong Kong from 23 years of study, teaching and research in the US.
His primary interest while on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo for 13 years was in optics and electronics. "I was working on different combinations of optics and electronics and material science," he recalls. "When I returned to Hong Kong I thought I should do something more practical, and considered integrating microelectronics and optics as HKUST had good microelectronics facilities. I was thinking of doing research into programmable holography. Then by chance I met a friend for tea, who was the founder of a successful LCD company in Hong Kong, and he asked me why not integrate microelectronics and optics in the form of display, as in having an entire display system on a single piece of silicon."
When he looked more deeply into it, Prof Kwok realized that this was indeed a "hot area", with the likes of industry giants IBM, Sony and Intel all working on it, and is a technology that people encounter in everyday life. He was also struck by the fact that display technology is a very practical field and therefore not a research area usually covered by universities. "It was not considered scientific enough, it's very commercially oriented," he comments. So he set about building on Hong Kong's expertise in microelectronics and applied for funding to set up an LCD line for the University, something he says would probably not have been possible in the US because it is much commercialized. He convinced the Hong Kong government to provide HK$15 million in funding, and his friend played a role with HK$1 million matching funds.
Prof Kwok's first project focused on the invention of liquid-crystal display on silicon (LCOS), which involved the successful integration of LCD and silicon-wafer integrated circuits (IC). "We developed one of the best micro-LCOS," he notes. "Applications include high-definition TV, projection TV and wearable-display goggles." This technology has since been licensed to a Taiwanese company. Next came the photo-aligning technique for LCD applications, for which Prof Kwok recruited the world's foremost expert in this field, Prof Vladimir Chigrinov. "The team is working with a Japanese company on this technology, which uses light rather than mechanical rubbing to align liquid crystals; it achieves better uniformity and doesn't produce waste and dust. We are hopeful that this technique will be commercialized in time." A third project has pioneered the development of low-temperature polycrystalline silicon (LTPS) thin-film transistors (TFT). "This is the backbone of all high-resolution displays on glass," he says. "We have invented a whole series of patents related to this technology, and we are also trying to commercialize it."
The SKL was set up in collaboration with Sun Yat-Sen University following approval from the Ministry of Science and Technology of the Central Government. With a grant of HK$5 million per year and matching funds from HKUST, it is initially focusing on five areas of research: oxide TFT-array technology; third-generation organic LED (OLED) devices; LCD devices; video-signal processing; and IC design; plus frontier technologies.
"Our aim is to make the best possible display and to improve existing technology," notes Prof Kwok. "There are still a lot of areas in this field where enhancements can be made, especially in energy conservation, cutting manufacturing costs and the development of flexible displays. Through PSKL we will be able to establish one of the best facilities for display research internationally. One of our goals is to make HKUST a hub of research in this field for China and the outside world. We also want to establish a platform for people to meet and discuss display-related issues, and to this end we will be organizing workshops; this will bring more activities to the School and the University."
Prof Kwok's role as director is to distribute funding and ensure that the facility generates good results and publicity. "I am working hard on interacting with industry. We have already achieved our first industrial contract, with China Star Optics Technology in Shenzhen, for TFT technology. We are also in negotiation with another company to work on flexible displays," he says.
He is keen that all the principle investigators involved in PSKL work in tandem and share their ideas and challenges. "This was a condition I made when deciding where the funding should go," he says. Among the projects that are already up and running, Prof Oscar Au is working on new ways to render sub-pixels to generate resolution by means of software. Prof Long Quan is working on 3D displays. Prof Patrick Yue is involved in integrating LED with displays in designs of circuits and transistor designs on panels. And Prof Ching W Tang – the inventor of OLED – is striving to improve coating technologies in order to reduce both cost and waste.
"Looking to the future, we have a good core of principle investigators and within the next five years I would like to see more funding from commercial activities, with at least three more technologies commercialized and generating revenues for the Lab," he says.
Prof Kwok takes this opportunity to sit back and ponder on the amazing developments in the field of display technology. "Display was not in my life 20 years ago – or anyone else's. But now it is everywhere: our world is display-centric and every person is in contact with it at least 20 times a day, be it on our phones, at the train station, the shopping mall, the bus stop…" He points to an area of wall adjacent to his desk and shares that in his imagination he can see a huge LCD frame there: "One day you can have a Monet on your wall, the next day a classical Chinese painting…" But his real wish is that it will be at PSKL that these amazing technologies can be developed.
Our aim is to make the best possible display and to improve existing technology.
Prof Hoi-Sing Kwok
Fascination for Electronics
- A childhood fascination with electronics sparked Prof Kwok's lifelong academic career; his hobby was electronics – he made a simple radio in elementary school, and in secondary school he built his own hi-fi system
- "I always found electronics fascinating because you get to make things yourself," says Prof Kwok
- BS, Electrical Engineering, Northwestern University
- MS and PhD, Applied Physics, Harvard University
- When HKUST started, Prof Kwok wrote to the founding president asking if he could spend a one-year sabbatical at the University. The president wrote back saying, "Sure, but why not spend 10 years with us?"; 22 years later he is still here!
- Recipient of 77 patents, with another 30 under review and produced over 700 refereed publications on display-related research
- Recipient of the first Distinguished Research Excellence Award of the School of Engineering for contributions to the field of display technologies
- IEEE Fellow
- Society for Information Display Fellow – "enables interaction with industry," says Prof Kwok
- Outside interests: history, Chinese poetry, calligraphy, geography and astronomy