Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

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Welcome to the Future…May 2004

It happened so imperceptibly that we hardly noticed. We began our flat panel journey roughly 40 years ago with such modest beginnings that not one of us could see the exciting future that lay ahead. One part of our journey started with LC displays for watches and calculators. We then moved on to somewhat more complicated but still mostly segment-addressed LC displays for test and measurement instruments, and to the first low-resolution row and column ones for portable applications. We achieved a major milepost when the first lap top computers with monochrome LC screens became commercial products. However, the low contrast and poor viewing angle of these early passive matrix displays made them just barely adequate -- even for the rudimentary word processing and spread sheet programs of that time. The developers and promoters of competing display technologies were of course more than happy to point out these severe deficiencies, and yet others, such as limited temperature range and poor speed of response. But ever so gradually, with creativity and persistence, LCD developers were able to overcome each and every limitation. The introduction of TFTs was a big step, but so were the various techniques that allowed for wider viewing angles, improved contrast, and better color gamut. As each year slipped by, the LC displays got better and bigger. Nevertheless, we still continued to look to the CRT as the standard for comparison. Overall it could still claim to have the best display quality.

Then on a day not so long ago, perhaps even at last year’s SID Symposium, we looked at an LCD screen and somewhat to our astonishment had to admit that we really could no longer find much wrong with it. It was bright, with excellent color and contrast, and had good viewing angle. And the speed of response looked quite adequate even for video images. A threshold had been crossed. These LC displays were now "good enough" even to our critical display-engineer eyes. While we knew that further refinements and improvements in display quality would surely still come, the only significant remaining issues we could at that moment suggest were manufacturing cost and the scale up of worldwide manufacturing capacity.

In an almost parallel universe, plasma panel technology began its journey from similarly modest beginnings and at about the same time. How many of you remember "nixie tubes" in the early digital multi-meters? The first "real" plasma panels were like the early LCDs -- also monochrome, but with the added feature of having a warm orange glow emanating from each active neon gas pixel. When color did come along, achieving clean saturated colors proved to be a difficult challenge for plasma technology, even after the three electrode structure was invented and down-converting phosphors became the accepted method for creating light emission. It was not until the early 90’s, with the introduction of the barrier rib structure, that we finally could provide adequate isolation between pixels and could create panels with colors that were bright and crisp. With that improvement, plasma technology was able to move at a faster pace toward product commercialization. Remaining issues such as the efficiency of the emission process, the complexity of the driving circuitry and long-life operation have continued to be challenges, but the spectacular images produced on these large screens have already captured the imagination and enthusiasm of the consuming public everywhere. This technology too has now arrived.

All of those past predictions of a futuristic world where we were supposed to find flat panel displays everywhere – well, it’s here! We have met virtually all of the expectations of the futurists. We are in the midst of a worldwide scale up of flat panel manufacturing capacity unprecedented even by semiconductor industry standards. It will not be too many more years before the sales of displays exceed those of the entire semiconductor industry. The LC and plasma display technologies will dominate our display world at least for the next decade. The CRT will continue to be important but its future is limited mostly to specialty applications and to television products in many regions of the world. An unfortunate result of the high enthusiasm for flat panel technologies could be the premature abandonment of CRT development and manufacturing. That should not be allowed to happen. Will we end up with only one dominant display technology? I believe it is way too early to make that assessment. In fact, it seems far more likely that other display technologies will also enjoy a robust future.

The upcoming SID Symposium (May 24-28, Seattle, WA) is likely to provide a number of key "leading indicators" to what the future may hold. One place to look will be in the Sessions describing the latest developments in display materials. Since it typically takes a decade or more from the time a new material is discovered to the time when commercial products begin to appear, understanding the status of such materials developments will provide valuable insights into future opportunities.

The most visible and perhaps most important new display technology that is currently in the midst of a transition from basic materials research to early commercialization is OLEDs. The future promise of this technology for efficient, bright, full color displays is considerable, but the challenges are also significant. But are they any greater than those first encountered by the developers of LC and Plasma technologies? It will take a few more years to find out. And what about other still evolving display technologies such as inorganic EL, FEDs, LEDs, and new light engines for projection applications? In some cases the answers are becoming clearer, but for others more research will be needed before the future path can be determined.

We are experiencing unprecedented growth as a result of worldwide consumer enthusiasm for the flat panel technologies we have been creating over the last 40 or more years. And while understandably the excitement is mostly for these new technologies, we shouldn’t forget that the venerable CRT still continues to carry us in the important home entertainment market. Flat panels have arrived and the era of large-screen entertainment systems is also here. It is with the greatest enthusiasm that we can look forward to the next decade when we can expect to see a proliferation of products incorporating a variety of display technologies inspired by the continuing rapid growth in compute power, image-processing software, and communications bandwidth.

Has this future arrived for you in your home as well? Is there a new large-screen television in your family room? If not, how much longer do you plan to hold out? I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on these topics and others. You may reach me from this web site, directly by e-mail at, by phone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.