Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting



Are We Falling Behind?... July 2000

It was the middle of the afternoon on a bright sunny day at 39,000 feet somewhere over the North Pacific Ocean. Inside the passenger cabin of the spacious Boeing 777 -- except for the emergency lighting, an occasional reading lamp, and the soft glow of several hundred LCD video screens -- it was dark. All the window shades were tightly drawn and the passengers were immersed in watching the video displays on the seat backs in front of them -- or on the armrest extensions in business and first class. Not being a serious movie watcher, I raised my window shade a few inches to see out. The passenger across the aisle from me immediately complained that he couldn't see his movie. I fussed, but grudgingly complied and put my window shade back down. I don't like sitting in the dark! I like to see daylight when it's available -- bright sunlight especially. Nevertheless, I felt I should be considerate of my fellow travelers, closed my shade, and sat in the dark for the remainder of the nine-hour flight. Having thus been politely chastised by a fellow passenger and now being in a grumpy mood because I wasn't free to satisfy my own preferences, I began to analyze the situation.

No question about it. The LCD panels in this latest version of the "triple-seven" were just barely adequate even for this non-critical captive-entertainment application. This led me to recall an article that I had seen just a few days earlier in USA Today about the new portable devices that are aiding the evolution of the interconnected society. In this article by Kevin Maney titled "Wireless Option Opens Door to a New e-World," the passage that caught my eye said, "There are caveats. Actually, lots of them. The screens stink. The access is slow. The offerings are meager. You have to work your way through menu hell to find things." (Bold emphasis added.) As a longtime member of the display community, those words cut pretty deep. Unfortunately, as I thought about it, I realized that in general I would have to agree with Mr. Maney's assessment that most portable devices do not have such great looking displays. Over the last two decades, the use of electronic displays in non-television applications has evolved from a few specialty products such as test instruments, military systems, and data terminals to become the primary human interface with computers and data- communications devices. In 1980 there were no desktop or laptop computers. Today their compute power rivals the mainframes of only a few years ago.

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Communications have evolved from a few "car phones" to almost everyone now being reachable independently of their location. These changes were predicted by the well-known Moore's Law that states that compute power approximately doubles every eighteen months to two years. Some well-respected software types claim that image processing capability is currently evolving even faster. The rate of data communications and database "interconnectedness" is also increasing rapidly. This leads me to pose two important questions to those of us in the display community: "How are we doing in bringing exciting new display products to market?" "Is the rate of display development commensurate with progress in compute power, imaging software, and communications bandwidth availability?" I'm going to suggest an answer, but with the proviso that if you have a better one or a different one, you must let me know. Why? Because the answer has important implications for how we position SID and represent our display community to the rest of the high-technology world over the next decade. My conclusion is that we are falling behind. Twenty years ago, displays, built on the solid foundation created by television and instrumentation applications, had more than adequate capability for the first rudimentary PCs and video games. For playing simple games like "pong," a monochrome CRT screen did not present a limitation.

Today, the best CRTs and LCD panels are still a reasonable match for desktop computers and perhaps barely adequate for portable laptop computers, cell phones, and first-generation PDAs. But what happens next? Although it is difficult to quantify all display parameters into a "goodness" factor, and I have no intentions of trying to propose a parallel to Moore's Law for displays, my best estimate is that display capability is doubling no faster than about every ten years. If I am correct, then we have a serious rate-of-development mismatch that will soon require resolution. Because of 40 years of television and instrumentation developments, displays were way ahead of what computers needed in the 1980s. Today, it seems to me that we are at no better than parity. And maybe not even that good. At our present rate of progress, in another ten years we will have become the highly visible bottleneck of the Internet society. Over the last two decades, investment money has flowed freely into microprocessors and memories, into software, and into Internet commerce startups. With a few rare exceptions, we in the display community have had a more difficult time creating investor interest and then sustaining it until success could be demonstrated. Yet there is a need for sunlight-readable displays, large displays for desktops, low-cost and easy-to-see displays for portable Internet appliances, high-resolution displays in all sizes and all price ranges for the new digital television applications, and flat panels of all kinds and sizes for low-cost multi-use home and commercial applications. Many of these new display applications are not simple product extensions of the traditional television displays or even of the newer desktop or laptop computer displays.

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The good side of this is that there will be an increasing demand for these displays. The bad side is that when we become the limiting factor in the development of new products, there will be increasing frustration among the system and software designers that will manifest itself in increasing demands on the display community. In response, there are likely to be numerous attempts at quick fixes and perhaps even a few "leapfrog" approaches proposed. However, if the fundamental principles haven't been thoroughly understood and the basic materials are not fully developed, these attempts will fail. The best that we can accomplish in bringing new display products to market in the next ten years has to a large degree already been set by what we know today about the basic materials and processes for creating emissive, transmissive, or reflective displays. How well we meet the needs of our colleagues in the rest of the high-technology community over the next decade will now depend on how much enthusiasm we can generate in the investment community and within the larger corporations, while being realistic in telling the world what rate of progress can be expected.

The Society for Information Display will also have to be prepared to play a leading role as the growing need for better displays of all shapes, sizes, and functionality manifests itself. As the increasing popularity of display devices stimulates rapid change and increased competition, SID can and must respond to these needs as the premier organization that provides the international focal point for the exchange of technical information in all aspects of display technology. Of one thing we can be sure, in the next decade we will be living in interesting times. To discuss this topic further, please contact me by e-mail at