Nearly every modern device screen you’ve held in your hand, from an Apple iPhone and Nintendo Game Boy to augmented reality (AR) glasses, was made possible because of the invention of a UCF professor.

College of Optics and Photonics Professor Shin-Tson Wu’s pioneering research in the evolution of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) has led to cutting-edge display technologies, making them more energy-efficient, vibrant and versatile. It also contributed to him becoming UCF’s inaugural Medal of Societal Impact awardee, which recognizes faculty whose research in science, engineering or medicine has significantly benefitted society.

He will be honored on Founders’ Day with the medal presented by President Alexander Cartwright and will receive a $50,000 grant. The recognition is part of the Founders’ Day Faculty Honors Celebration from 3 to 5 p.m. next Wednesday in the Student Union’s Pegasus Ballroom. The campus community is invited.

The displays that Wu’s work enabled have transformed how we interact with information, communicate with others and experience the world around us. These flat-panel screens are much thinner and lighter, with higher resolution and more vivid colors, and work in devices large and small. They also use significantly less electricity — three times less than traditional cathode-ray tube televisions of years past, meaning reduced impact on the environment and on consumers’ electric bills.

But that’s not what Wu says is one of his greatest career accomplishments.

It’s his students.

“My group is really blessed,” he says of the 43 doctoral students he’s graduated since arriving at UCF in 2001. “So far, we have 15 working with Apple and 10 with Meta, several in academia, and some with Google and Applied Materials. And I sometimes talk to their supervisor or vice president, and they all appreciate our students very much. They are held in high regards.”

Shin-Tson Wu in a lab with students
Trustee Chair Professor and Pegasus Professor of Optics and Photonics Shin-Tson Wu working in his lab with students (Photo by Kadeem Stewart ’17)

Wu was selected for UCF’s newest major faculty honor by an external committee of members from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine.

“It’s a group effort,” Wu says when reflecting on his career accomplishments. “I’m just one of the contributors.”

“Many people have made tremendous contributions to society in different ways, in different fields of view, some known and some unknown,” he continues. “My contributions are in some ways quite limited, but I feel very honored to receive this recognition.”

Despite his humbleness, Wu’s inventions have had far-reaching impacts.

His seminal contribution to the field was inventing the mixed-mode twisted nematic liquid crystal cell while working for Hughes Research Laboratories in California from 1983 to 2001.

This invention revolutionized high-brightness, high-resolution, high-contrast reflective and transflective (works in outdoor and low-light conditions) LCDs, setting new standards for display technology across various applications, from sunlight-readable, direct-view screens to projection and wearable displays, such as Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap 2.

“Dr. Wu’s pioneering work helped transform the way the world communicates and illustrates the ability of research and technology to improve lives and society.” — UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright

His groundbreaking work has transformed everyday life, as evidenced by the pervasive presence of high-quality displays in modern society, from smartphones and tablets to smartwatches and digital billboards.

Moreover, the invention of versatile LCDs has further revolutionized critical sectors such as medical monitoring, transportation safety, emergency response, health information access and public safety, allowing clear and reliable display solutions for workers in these essential fields.

“Dr. Wu’s pioneering work helped transform the way the world communicates and illustrates the ability of research and technology to improve lives and society,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “His commitment to innovation, partnership and student success exemplifies the caliber of excellence of our UCF faculty, and he is incredibly deserving of this distinctive recognition.”

Prolific Inventor

Wu’s inventions at Hughes Research Laboratories focused on display science and technologies.

The researcher says his eureka moment that led to creating reflective mixed-mode twisted nematic liquid crystal cells came when he realized that if he made a liquid crystal layer thinner, the light passing through it would be reflected back more effectively. This would allow the creation of a reflective display that could be illuminated using ambient light or an ultra-bright light source, instead of a transmissive one dependent on a light behind the screen.

He tested this idea, found it successful, and patented it in 1995, publishing his findings the following year.

Out of Shin-Tson Wu’s 96 U.S. patents, he says about two-thirds were obtained while at UCF.

His latest inventions include further advancements in display technology, particularly in the area of AR glasses. These inventions aim to make microdisplay light engines more compact, lighter weight and more efficient, with a focus on incorporating them into eyeglasses for AR applications.

Collaborating with colleagues and leading-industry sponsors, Wu’s team is working on innovations to improve optical efficiency, reduce power consumption and enhance the user experience for near-eye displays. They are also exploring the integration of display technology with artificial intelligence (AI) to train digital twins, which could have significant implications for fields such as transportation, smart cities and smart healthcare.

He says he’ll use the grant from the Medal of Societal Impact to invest in his students and in lab equipment to further advance their research.

In addition to receiving the Medal of Societal Impact, Wu is also a UCF Trustee Chair Professor. He received his bachelor’s in physics from National Taiwan University and his doctoral degree in physics from the University of Southern California. He is the recipient of multiple top awards in his field, including the Optica/IS&T Edwin H. Land medal, SPIE Maria Goeppert-Mayer award, OSA Esther Hoffman Beller Medal, SID Slottow-Owaki Prize, OSA Joseph Fraunhofer Award, SPIE G. G. Stokes Award, and SID Jan Rajchman Prize. He is also an academician of Academia Sinica, the national academy of Taiwan.

Wu credits the strong collaborative environment at UCF as what brought and kept him here for more than two decades.

“I think collaboration is very important, because nowadays research is very multidisciplinary,” Wu says. “We can only know our own field, but we need to know others. So, the most efficient way is to collaborate. We have many outstanding scholars at UCF, so it’s very easy to make this happen.”