Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting



A Great Race...February 2002

As Phil, Ken, and I stood a few feet in front of the 40-inch LCD panel, we did what all serious display engineers would do. We tried to identify every possible flaw and defect. Yes, the display was not perfect. There was a slight amount of background non-uniformity, apparently due to a step-and-repeat process used in the manufacture of the very large TFT array. There was also a barely detectable "shimmer" in scenes with large areas of a single color. However, overall our consensus was that this was a display we wouldn't mind taking home with us. Resolution, brightness, color gamut, contrast, and video response -- all were more than adequate. In fact, the conclusion was that this would become an excellent product once the transition from the few industry-show samples to volume manufacturing was completed.

Later that day, I returned to the Samsung booth and took a second, even more careful, look at this impressively large display panel. In one of the video clips being shown in the lower left corner of this demonstration, there was a time-line for the introduction of this and yet larger LCDs. According to Samsung, plans are already in place for the production of LCD panels as large as 52 inches in 2003!

Phil Heyman, Ken Werner, and I had come to the LCD/PDP International Conference and Exhibition in Yokohama to present keynote-session talks on the status and future of displays in the US. The LCD/PDP Exhibition is similar in size to the Exhibition at the SID Symposium, but with more emphasis on production equipment and manufacturing materials. At this show, I encountered the largest sputtering targets I have even seen -- one version approximately one meter square and others up to two meters long. The two aisles of display products concentrated on showing the latest in LCDs and PDPs -- for obvious reasons I suppose.

With the most recent productization efforts, PDPs now seem to be available in all sizes ranging from 30 to 62 inches. In almost every case, brightness, resolution, and contrast are as good as anyone would want for television viewing or advertising applications. Looking at all these displays, for the first time I had to concede that I could no longer say unequivocally that video images on a CRT are superior and have a more pleasant "feel" -- perhaps like audio amplifiers made with vacuum tubes versus all solid state. Even as a critical user, I had to admit that I could be happy with any of these displays. Seeing all those great LCD and PDP panels then led me to the following question and conclusion. If all of these displays produce great looking images and if there is little that the viewer can do to distinguish one over another, then what is left? Well, I am afraid that it will now all come down to selling price, and therefore, manufacturing cost.

Thus, the Great Race is on. Some years ago there was a movie with this name, starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, and Jack Lemmon. The story was set in the early 20th century, when automobiles were beginning to have their first serious impact on society. This light-hearted movie depicted the ups and downs of an around-the-world competition involving automobiles built during a time of rapidly evolving but immature technology. Added to this were the challenges of poor roads, unpredictable fuel supplies, and weather conditions that varied from hot desert climates to Siberian snowstorms. The outcome, of course, was intentionally in doubt right up to the last minute of the movie.

Is something similar going to happen in the display industry? Currently, the CRT is still in the lead for video applications – that is, television -- but is limited to sizes of not much more than 40 inches. Over the next decade, we can expect to see continuing performance improvements and further modest decreases in manufacturing costs. But, is LCD technology progressing faster and will it soon become a serious contender, challenging the CRT's dominant position? LCDs have recently grown in size and performance capabilities faster than many predicted, and prices have dropped faster than expected. Isn't it just a few years ago that we marveled at 20-inch panels? Will LCDs become the first display technology that progresses at the rate predicted by Moore's Law? If we recognize the TFT as just a large integrated circuit, then perhaps there is good reason to think that this is possible. However, a typical integrated circuit does not have to be any particular size and thus components and interconnects can be scaled to ever smaller dimensions. In a display, the overall size is of course the primary objective. Do we need some new version of Moore’s Law to help guide us into the future?

Plasma panels also have made major improvements in image quality and are now "good enough" for video applications. Sizes are actually coming down as manufacturers attempt to find the best selling combinations of size and price. The larger direct-view displays that were once considered the sole turf of plasma technology may soon be challenged by LCDs. And even CRT technology could grow to beyond 40 inches with new wider-deflection yokes and new compact electron sources. To complicate this competitive melange further, there may even be new "dark horse" technologies -- like the properly villainous competitors played by Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk in the Great Race movie. How about electroluminescent- or field-emission-based displays? For these or other technologies to succeed they will have to meet all the performance capabilities of today's CRTs, LCDs, and plasma panels -- and at a lower price. Can it be done?

One fundamental advantage held by the CRT is that it is not a fixed-format technology -- whereas all flat panels are. Currently, we know of no way to make a flat panel without using row and column addressing. That means that as resolution increases more rows and columns must be added. For every doubling of resolution, four times as many addressable points and drivers are needed. For the CRT, on the other hand, as resolution increases, the increase in complexity is more modest.

As more PDPs and LCDs appear in video showrooms over the next few years, what might we expect? It is certain that prices will decline from their current levels. But what if they are still higher than the typical consumer would like to spend? Then there may just be another technology "villain" in this Great Race (villainous only from the standpoint of the PDP and LCD competitors, of course). That technology "villain" may be the various implementations of front and/or rear projection displays. There are several interesting technologies evolving that could allow for the introduction of relatively low-priced projectors providing bright, high-resolution images. While perhaps not quite as elegant as a truly flat panel, for a sufficiently low price, projection-based products could become the choice of price-sensitive consumers.

One thing for sure, no matter who wins this race -- or even if there are multiple winners -- the next decade is going to be an exciting one for those of us in the display industry. Who do you think will win this Great Race for the consumers' pocket book? What will you be purchasing to satisfy your cravings for large-screen HDTV-like viewing? If you would like to express your thoughts regarding these questions, you can contact me by e-mail at or, by phone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983, or by conventional mail at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.