Welcome to the Future
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 years
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 90s, 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, its
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 shouldnt
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 425-898-9117,
or by fax at 425-898-1727.