Published Fall IT/AV 2007

Display Excitement
Lots of activity at recent industry events.
By Neal Weinstock

 

Beginning at the Society of Information Display (SID) conference in Long Beach in May, and continuing on through the InfoComm show down the road in Anaheim in June, then the US Flat Panel Display conference in July (up the road in San Jose) and the Siggraph computer graphics conference (back down the road in San Diego) in August, the makers of commercial displays put on some fireworks for the hot months in California.

The big themes: LCDs get bigger, faster and are customized for commercial use. Manufacturers start to compete with integrators. LED backlights are becoming ubiquitous. More huge LCD and OLED investments. Many companies showing flexible displays. Many new handheld-size projectors. Displays with embedded optical sensing.

What do all these themes combine to mean for your business? Let’s try to figure it out.

Bigger, Faster, Customized

At SID, LCDs dominated, and Samsung and LG.Philips continued their inter-Korean war over who could produce the largest. Sharp showed its 2D and 3D displays, which allow viewers on different sides to see wholly distinct images; the expectation is that this may come into wide use in cars, so drivers might see navigation information while passengers would see entertainment. But uses in commercial AV, obviously, can be imagined easily, as well.

Another theme was faster motion refresh time: Most displays available now run at 60Hz. Sony, Sharp and JVC are already selling 120Hz LCD models, and now Samsung has brought out a 70-inch 120Hz LCD. There’s even a company, IPS Alpha Technology, that has demonstrated 180Hz frame rates in an LCD, but it is not yet selling these in the US.

Faster refresh (120Hz frame rate allows screen refresh every 8.3 milliseconds, compared with 16.7ms for 60Hz displays) allows greater apparent image quality, especially in scenes with fast motion, and greater potential for 3D. Faster displays, therefore, are inherently more interesting for commercial use than for consumer TV.

On the projector side, Sony is leading the pack with a 240Hz frame rate for its SXRD, an LCD-based microdisplay aimed at the highest quality applications.

LED Excitement

LEDs also generated excitement at SID, but mostly for tasks within what is commonly thought of as an LCD. When LEDs are used to backlight LCDs, they yield brighter images than the older cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) in common usage now, greater ability to reproduce and calibrate color and maintain that calibration, and higher contrast ratio. Coming in future years, LCD manufacturers are expecting to replace color filters with sequential color LEDs. In other words, the LED backlight would alternate between red, green, blue and white. This switching would generate additional heat, but this may be lessened and dissipated by lighting only from the edges, or by other solutions.

There was a bit of non-LCD-related LED news over the Summer, but really only for us commercial AV types. Barco and the smaller Israeli manufacturer FnP Media both came out with strong new black-background LEDs with tight resolution meant for indoor use. As the LED sign moves indoors, it gets used for lighting effects, atmosphere and decorative applications where video has never gone before. So, LEDs will be with us for quite a while longer.

Still, organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays continue to be the big little technology of the future. Samsung announced that its $500 million AMOLED (active matrix OLED) plant currently is beginning volume production. Samsung, Sony, the Toshiba-Matsushita joint venture, LG.Philips and the Kodak-backed Chi Mei Optoelectronics all showed new small OLEDs for mobile devices; Toshiba-Matsushita showed a 21-inch model that reportedly will be manufactured in quantity by 2009. Samsung is supplying AMOLEDs now to two actual products: the iRiver Clix2 mobile video handset and a mobile phone made by Kyocera and not currently sold in the US. More should come out soon.

Get Flexible

A few of the companies already mentioned also showed flexible OLEDs at SID, and E Ink was there, too, showing prototypes of thin displays you can roll up and put in a bag. These likely will have huge applications in commercial display once screen sizes increase and cost comes down. Among the advances shown this Summer:

• LG.Philips showed the first full-color flexible display using amorphous silicon and phosphorescent OLEDs. In a different product using E Ink technology, the company also showed the biggest ever flexible color display on steel foil, at 14 inches diagonal.

• Samsung also licenses technology from E Ink, and showed a 40-inch display (non-flexible) that consumes 500 times less power than a typical LCD; Samsung particularly hopes to use the technology in commercial displays where it’s hard to get power, and batteries must be used. The company also showed a 14.3-inch color flexible display on plastic.

• Prime View International (PVI), a licensee of Philips technology, showed the world’s first flexible active matrix electrophoretic display (the same technology used by E Ink—though in a passive matrix—in which charged particles are controlled as they move around an electric field), at 10 inches diagonal.

Big Investments, Big Profits, Big Shipments

It was a bullish Summer on the financial front for LCD companies. Sharp announced that it’s spending $3.2 billion on a new plant in Japan to make mostly the largest sizes of LCDs, with volume production to begin in 2009. LG.Philips announced strongly growing profitability, to about $250 million in the Summer quarter, and this is more important than you may think.

Only Samsung, among LCD-makers, was profitable last year or in 2005. Now Sony and Sharp, too, seem to be profitable in displays. Industries don’t normally grow over time if they are not profitable. Displays have been an exception, as Korean companies, in particular, have not seemed to care much about profits and have driven worldwide competitors to think much the same.

But, with the general financial shock that set in at the end of the Summer—and with that shock focused on US mortgages, which consumers have been using for credit to buy new flat-panel TVs—some profitability will be important to assure suppliers stay in the game.

For the year, most forecasters are predicting worldwide shipments of 350 million units or more of the large-sized LCD panels that typically are used in commercial applications, which would be up about 25% from 2006. Yet, last year, the Korean market researcher Displaybank said there was a supply glut of about 8%, and they say there isn’t one this year.

When LG says, “Life’s Good,” it’s true.

Commercial Connectivity

Very much related to the disappearance of a glut, there are a two “connectivity” trends these days in displays. These trends might not seem to be connected, but they are.

Philips showed the biggest E Ink flexible color display ever at SID's Display Week 2007; this shows how it works.

Manufacturers increasingly are connecting directly to commercial AV customers. They are doing so partly by creating or beefing up direct sales and systems integration organizations (which, of course, compete directly with many readers of Sound & Communications). And they are also doing so by providing more connectors of the types required in commercial applications as standard parts of many larger displays. In past years, allocations of larger flat panels were so limited that it wasn’t really necessary to add such features to move the goods, and price competition was such that buyers and sellers alike tended to prefer stripped-down packages. Now things have changed.

At SID, Hewlett Packard (HP) execs spoke of packaging Ethernet connections with most future displays. That would be pretty radical, and it will have to compete with technologies developed specifically for connecting displays. The DisplayPort 1.1 standard was approved just this year by the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA); most importantly, it supports the DHCP security standard, which the older rival HDMI connectivity standard already supported.

DisplayPort goes HDMI one better by including support for fiberoptic cables, particularly important in connecting PCs to flat panels. Meanwhile, besides HP, a number of other manufacturers lined up to announce that they would ship displays meant for the commercial market with connectors for the aforesaid standards, as well as DVI and HD-SDI.

At InfoComm, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony and Sharp all discussed how they have focused their display products on the commercial market. Besides connectivity, most boast of rugged components designed for 24/7 reliability, as well as commitments to service and education for commercial customers and high-volume end users.

Pocket Monsters

All of this sound pretty darn good? Well, the other big trend breaking last Summer might just kill a lot of these good things off. Not in the signage or other public display markets, but in presentations, we may be seeing the birth of a new era of displays…of tiny displays.

Oddly timed to coincide with InfoComm, Epson announced a reference design for its personal projector. Featuring two types of 3LCD technology coupled to a new Philips lamp, it is aimed squarely at the consumer market. Epson claims to be able to project up to 60-inch images from a camera, camcorder, PDA, multimedia player or game console.

Resolution is SVGA, with about 300 lumens. That’s much higher than the 50 to 100 lumens seen previously from the first generation of pocket projectors last year, but less than the 700 to 800 lumens now offered by many larger commercial projectors. Epson expects that the final product, available next year, will sell for about $400.

The tiny projector market probably will break into two pieces: standalone devices such as Epson’s, which rapidly will grow more and more capable and replace many of today’s projectors meant for institutional presentations, and far tinier devices meant to fit as components into mobile phones and other multipurpose handhelds.

The latter category, already shown by startups including Teraop, Microvision and Scram Technologies, as well as by Motor- ola and other big mobile device makers, will concentrate on improvements in miniaturization at the expense of resolution and brightness, and thus will offer no real competition for commercial displays. But watch out for the little new generation of standalone projectors. They probably will devour a chunk of your current business.



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