Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Next Generation Displays – for Work, Home and in Between…November 2002

As we look ahead to the future prospects for display technologies, we see many excellent opportunities. The rapid increases in computer capabilities and communications bandwidth have accelerated the need for excellent displays. New improved displays are needed to interface all the information that is being created and transmitted at ever greater speeds and in ever growing quantities.

The display products that we will see over the next ten years can be quite accurately predicted from the base materials technologies that are currently under development. It takes at least ten years and typically longer for products to become available in significant volumes once a new display technology is discovered. Therefore, by a careful look at the display materials technologies that are currently in the research stages or being developed for use in products, we can quite reasonably ascertain the next ten or more years of display product evolution.

However, the understanding of the underlying display technologies only gives us one part of the story. We must also appreciate that new applications are not primarily technology driven. Technology is a facilitator but the final product choices are made by the various users of those technologies. Therefore, a thorough understanding of the needs that will be driving the various market segments is equally important for a complete understanding of the products that we may be using some years from now. Getting the new technologies to market will be just as challenging as the scientific research and engineering development that spawned those new display capabilities.

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The goal of this column is to explore the technologies that will become available over the coming years and to combine this understanding with an analysis of evolving user needs to predict the trends in the markets that pertain to displays – in the industrial work environment, in the typical home, and during the time that we are in transit between our work environments and home or other locations.

Displays for Industrial Equipment -The industrial and professional usage markets typically demand functionality and ruggedness in the displays selected for a given application. These markets often present excellent opportunities for the introduction of new display technologies. This is because performance can be more important than cost and because usage volumes are typically modest. This can allow a new technology to enter a market with low risk and with users to whom new performance features are vitally important. These markets are also characterized by a large variety of display product configurations ranging from simple portable instrument indicator displays to large CRTs or flat-panels with extremely high- resolution demands. Below we address the medical, test and measurement, and factory automation market segments for further analysis.

Medical -Several new trends are going to be important for medical displays. The three most important are likely to be displays with higher resolutions, displays that can depict 3-D images, and displays that can be used in head-mounted configurations. The higher resolution and excellent gray scale rendering capabilities are necessary for accurate analysis of images captured by X-ray, MRI, ultrasound, or other non-invasive methods. The need for 3-D rendering will become more important as computer power is combined with these non-invasive diagnostic tools to visualize the information captured. The head mounted display technologies will see increased usage as doctors begin to rely more on real-time diagnostic image capture during surgery and other medical procedures. We can also expect to see new display technologies being applied to help improve various vision deficiencies such as macular degeneration.

To meet the needs for higher resolution and accurate gray scale, LCD and CRT technologies are going to dominate. Currently, monochrome CRTs can provide precise high resolution rendering of X-ray images, but LCD panels, of also very high resolution, have recently been introduced by IBM that will pose a serious challenge to the more mature CRT technology.

For rendering 3-D images, many of the existing display technologies can provide an adequate solution. The simplest approach for rendering 3-D images is to use a conventional display (a two-dimensional surface) and to create the third dimension artificially by electronically rotating the image. A more sophisticated method is some form of stereoscopic image rendering. The only known techniques that can produce acceptable results for medical applications utilize the presentation of alternate images with electronic switching and/or light polarization. Therefore, for the more critical medical applications, it is likely that active or passive eyeglasses will continue to be necessary for stereoscopic viewing.

The evolving need for head-mounted displays will be met by several approaches. These displays will either be based on LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) or Micromechanical (MEMS) Scanners. The first applications will be met with monochrome displays because that is all that the diagnostic capture equipment is capable of creating. However, over time the application of computer generated color will become more important as new information capture and processing capabilities are added.

Test and Measurement - The dominant trends in this market segment are going to be directed toward improving the viewability of displays, to more use of head-mounted display products, and to the wider application of touch input and voice interactivity. This market segment is characterized by perhaps more variety than any other. Displays of all sizes and varieties may be suitable. Cost is often a driving criterion for the final selection. That means that this market is very sensitive to the perceived value (performance vs. cost) of a display product or technology.

The majority of T&M applications over the next ten years will utilize LCD panels. There will also be some opportunity for the newer OLED and FED technologies for meeting the demands of excellent viewability, higher light conversion efficiency, and ruggedness.

For applications where diagnostic information must be transmitted to the user during a servicing or repair operation, head-mounted displays will become more common. The technologies here will be the same as in the medical segment, i.e. LCOS or MEMS scanners. However, this will represent a small segment of the overall T&M display market. Similarly we can expect some modest adoption of touch or voice inputs, but there will be no massive shift away from the traditional instrument configurations.

Factory Automation - Every element of a modern production process demands complete documentation and real-time tracking of yields, quantities produced, process variables, and material flow. Displays become the critical interface for collecting and analyzing all this information. At each step, one must know the equipment status, operating parameters, and all the pertinent information about the product that is progressing through this step. The display technologies available today by-and-large already meet the needs of the automated factory. What we can expect in the future is the incorporation of displays at virtually every process step and every operator's station. We can also expect the increased use of voice processing and head-mounted units that allow the operator hands-free operation while providing critical information such as instructions on how to repair a malfunctioning piece of equipment.

Direct view LCDs will satisfy virtually all of the non-HMD applications. We may also see a limited use of plasma panels for certain common information functions. However, factory automation should not be expected to drive the development of new display technologies.

Electronic Home Appliances

The electronic home has been the technologists’ dream for perhaps over 50 years. But it has not evolved nearly the way the early technology pioneers predicted. Consumers have been reluctant to adopt the many electronic "features" that have been offered up over the years. And, it turns out, for a very good reason. The major difficulty is that homes and electronic products have very different life cycles. Referencing the graph, we can see that the life cycle of a typical house is over 100 years. At the other extreme, a desktop computer has a typical life cycle of perhaps three years. Therefore, if we combine a computer and a house, the computer will be obsolete long before the new house is even beginning to be show significant wear. An illustration of this incompatibility can be found in the intercom systems that were built into houses ten or fifteen years ago. Today, they look obsolete, old fashioned, and replacement parts are difficult to find. Yet, the house itself is in its prime and ready for many more years of productive service. Consumers seems to have more common sense than the technologists that keep predicting the future electronic home with all functions interconnected and run from a central control unit or computer.

From this analysis it is reasonable to conclude that it will be easier and more sensible to introduce products that are self standing and do not require permanent installation into the basic structure of a house or apartment building.

The second major trend that is likely to impact the use of displays in a home environment is the convergence -- or not -- of television and the Internet. Again, it is my conclusion that it will not happen the way some are predicting. Information processing and television watching are two distinct activities that are not all that easy to combine. The typical user of a desktop or laptop computer positions his eyes less than one meter from the screen for optimum viewing. On the other hand, the typical television viewer sits approximately three meters from the screen. It is difficult to surf the Internet from a three-meter distance. Also the usage objectives are typically quite different. Television is meant to be a non-interactive entertainment experience while the computer is intensively interactive and often representative of a business-like environment. Certainly this is not to say that some users will not appreciate having access to television broadcasts from their computers, but the two functions will have only very limited convergence potential. Therefore, we can expect that most homes will have a multiplicity of entertainment devices as well as a multiplicity of information processing appliances. This will be a very positive driving force for the display industry.

Over the next decade we can expect television, computers, and communications appliances to dominate the usage of home displays. We can expect a proliferation of specialized electronic appliances rather than a convergence into some kind of ubiquitous entertainment/information appliance. We can also anticipate that sophisticated products such as eye-recognition security systems that attempt to replace simple and reliable mechanical functions will have very limited and slow acceptance. Ease of use, cost, and reliability will be important criteria for all new products.

Internet appliances will be used to acquire time sensitive information, for electronic commerce, for data searches, for e-mail communications, and only later for the transmission of real-time video images. Features such as instant access and virus-proof operation will become commonly available in response to consumer demands.

An often-neglected market segment, when new technology applications are being considered, is the product category encompassing toys and games. This market often turns out to be a leading indicator for other future products. Currently, we are seeing dramatic improvements in interactive and visually realistic games, new and innovative learning aids, and the early efforts at intelligent and interactive robots. As sensors and voice processing capabilities improve, we can expect these products to grow in popularity and utility. Over time we can also expect the wider introduction of virtual personae and the combination of computer intelligence with video to both entertain and inform.

Over the next decade, we can expect the CRT to continue to be an important display technology for television sets. There will be a stronger shift to LCDs for desktop computers. Plasma panels will be important for larger screen hang-on-the wall television, but it is also possible that the expected high price of plasma panels will encourage the increased adoption of projection systems. Both front and rear projectors are likely to increase in popularity for home theater use. There are a number of interesting technologies that are going to provide major improvements in projection display image quality. These improved projection systems may present an interesting challenge to plasma technology in the home entertainment market.

Mobile Communications

Over the last decade, we have seen a dramatic growth of location independent communications. This newly found mobility can perhaps be thought of as "wearable electronics." Unlike the desktop computer market, this one is far from saturation. Opportunities abound. Wearable electronics usage breaks down into the two broad categories of communications (voice or data) and entertainment. Within the communications segment, in addition to the obvious voice functions, we are beginning to add data, mapping, monitoring, and eventually near-real-time video functions. This opens up many new product possibilities and thereby new display requirements. In the entertainment segment, the increased capability of portable games, video functions, and access to music libraries will also drive new products and new display opportunities.

Wearable electronics presents perhaps the greatest challenge to display developers. There are some fundamentally conflicting needs for portable displays. Since they are used in a variety of environments, from a dimly lit room to bright sunlight, readability is important so the display must have good contrast and adequate brightness under all of these conditions. This is not always compatible with the requirement for low power to achieve long operation from small (portable) batteries. Size and weight of the display itself are also important considerations but these can be counter to the need for high information content. Finally, portable displays must be extremely rugged and reliable, yet most consumers wish to have them at low (throwaway) cost.

This market segment will present many opportunities for the exploration and introduction of the newer display technologies. While the dominant display technology over the next decade will be the LCD, there will be excellent new opportunities for Organic LEDs and perhaps even for FEDs.

Summary - Expectations for Display Technologies

With these many opportunities for the application of displays to existing and new products, what can we expect from each of the technologies that are either currently being used or that are under intensive development? Let us briefly consider each one in turn.

CRTs - This is a technology that is over 100 year old, but is still the dominant display based on worldwide revenue. The CRT is far from obsolete. Recently, we have seen the trend to flat screen CRTs. The current major development push is to reduce the depth of the CRT while continuing to improve its image quality. We can expect to see this cost-effective technology to survive for still many years with continued improvements. A major advantage for the CRT over any known flat panel technology is that flat panels are fixed-format displays whereas the CRT is not. Therefore, as resolution increases the complexity of flat-panel displays increases as the square of the linear resolution while the CRTs complexity does not.

LCDs - Unquestionably, this will be the dominant display technology of the next decade. We can expect continued improvements in image quality and there will be a major trend to larger sizes. As the display size increases beyond 20 and 30 inches and as prices continue to decline (at a slower rate than during the past few years) there will be further penetration into the desktop computer market and then into television products. A few years from now, LCDs will begin to challenge plasma panels in the 30" to 40" sizes. LCD technology will also become prevalent for projection applications.

Plasma Panels - This is currently the only available flat panel technology for larger-size displays of video images. At this time, the major challenge for plasma display products is cost. In the professional and commercial markets this is not a serious impediment to the early adoption of this technology, but for consumer television applications the high prices could become a barrier preventing the anticipated growth toward high-volume sales. For this reason, manufacturers are working diligently to try to reduce costs while improving efficiency, brightness, and contrast.

Projection Displays - There are many technologies that can create viable products. These can range from the traditional projection CRTs, to LCDs, MEMS, and combinations of light amplifiers and color converters. We can expect projection displays to be stimulated by the introduction of new technology variants. They also present a new opportunity to explore higher color accuracy and higher display quality than is available from today's direct-view or projection displays.

LEDs and OLEDs - The efficiency and brightness of these direct emission technologies makes them highly suitable for use in lighting applications, signage, and for full-video displays. Over the next decade, we can expect continued rapid development of these technologies with intense efforts by many companies to bring new products to market.

FEDs - A few years ago, field emission technology was predicted to provide competition to LCDs. Unfortunately, too many promises were made too soon. Significant technical problems were encountered and it was necessary to do additional basic materials research before applications to display products could be considered. This research is now beginning to bear fruit and we can expect to see a second generation of developments that should provide interesting display applications for this technology.

Progress in displays and lighting depends on the discoveries of new emissive or light-control materials. The only real "breakthroughs" occur at the materials level. Only after a new emissive or light-control material is found and thoroughly understood is it possible to create the display devices that eventually become successful products. Further progress in creating new displays that are brighter, more efficient, or more rugged will depend on such materials developments. The demand for new display capabilities will accelerate over the next decade.

Since the cycle from early discovery to product application takes at least ten years and often much longer, the international display community must be prepared to respond with increased effort and additional resources in all phases of display research. We in the display community are increasingly the critical information bottleneck of the Internet Society. The challenges will be great but the future will be rich with opportunities.

As always I appreciate hearing your comments and opinions. You can reach me by e-mail at Email, by phone at 425-557-8850, or by fax at 425-557-8983.