Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Please Don’t Stomp on My Flower…

Like new Crocuses poking their heads up through the cold ground of early spring, new ideas are very fragile. Just a touch of skepticism or an initially negative response from a person of authority can often be enough to stop further consideration. And even when the idea, and the person behind it, is strong enough to withstand these first assaults, subsequent critical reviews may succeed in squashing any further attempts to explore the potential opportunities that such a new idea may bring. The conclusion will be – “Well, we just couldn’t make a good business case, given all the risks and uncertainties.”

Of course you couldn’t. That’s the fundamental challenge of new ideas -- not all the questions can be answered until further work is done. Many business managers today insist that they need to have essentially all the answers before they will take the first step. How big is the market for the products that will come from this? Who will be the customers? How will the competition respond? Have all the technology risks been addressed? Will we be able to produce the products at a competitive price? What will the manufacturing investment have to be? And so on.

Compare this to what you have sitting in front of you on your lab bench: A blob of glowing “stuff” that looks nothing like what anyone has seen before. All you would like to do is to try to take this interesting “glowing goo” to the next level of making a rudimentary low-resolution display. How do you make a business case when even you don’t know what could come from all this? But without some new funding, the work will soon have to be abandoned – even as a “backroom” project.

I recently read an article in Smithsonian magazine (August 2004) about Chester Carlson and the beginnings of Xerography. He made the first image in 1938, but the first successful product was not introduced until 1959. It took that many years of persistent and perhaps some would say irrational effort to get from the first demonstration of the technical concept to the first successful product. Along the way Chester Carlson spent six years unsuccessfully trying to interest companies in developing and manufacturing the copier he had envisioned. None of the executives and business decision-makers in these major corporations could see the potential value and business opportunity in this new way of creating images on paper.

Now, I am not suggesting that every new idea is a great one. However, many that sometimes seem a bit crazy in the beginning turn out to be not so crazy after all. For example, suppose that I told you that I wished to introduce a new display product for consumer use that requires a glass bottle that will be evacuated and can easily be broken sending glass shards in all directions with explosive force. Not only that it will require voltages above 35,000 volts and contain toxic materials such as barium and strontium. And, by the way, since the high voltage electron streams are aimed right at the viewer, I need to put lots of lead into the glass to provide for adequate shielding from x-rays. Then there are a few other “minor details” such as how to get the electrons to only hit those areas of the display screen that I have selected. Well, I think you get the idea. The venerable CRT would most likely not make it “out of committee” if the idea were to be introduced today and if a business case had to be made for it.

This same conclusion could be made for other display technologies as well – including the new highly successful flat panels such as LCDs and PDPs. In the beginning, LCDs had poor contrast, were way too slow for video, the temperature range was inadequate for many applications, and the viewing angle was limited. Larger screens and resolutions beyond about 500 lines were practical impossibilities because of the limitations of the available passive addressing schemes. Active matrix addressing was considered too expensive (except for specialized commercial and military applications) and could only be made in small screen sizes.

The first Plasma panels were a really nice color – if you like orange. Several decades passed before a color display could be produced. And even then, the efficiency, brightness, and cost of manufacturing scale-up were considered barriers to this technology becoming accepted for large-volume consumer products.

None of us, no matter how knowledgeable, could predict that every one of these problems would yield to a commercially viable solution. The ability to scale TFTs to the sizes we have today, and with reasonable manufacturing yields, was simply not envisioned by anyone. I suppose this is the Moore’s Law equivalent for display technology. The developments that allowed for wider viewing angles and that led to LC materials that can operate at full video speeds also could not be extrapolated from what was known in the earlier days of LCD development.

For plasma panels, a look at history leads to a similar conclusion. After many years of trying, the first truly successful color plasma display was introduced around 1995. It depended on a complex multi-layer screen-printed substrate. This challenging back-plane manufacturing process seemed to indicate that larger sizes and higher resolutions would be difficult to achieve and that costs would always be too high for a consumer product. However, with additional work, new ways of making the back plane structure were developed which were easier to produce in large volumes. Once development of color plasma panel products began in earnest, the other challenges of low brightness and poor efficiency also yielded to creative solutions.

I suppose the perversity of all this is that most of the time we simply cannot predict which obstacles will yield to a solution and which will become the “show stoppers” and/or “fatal flaws” that lead to eventual failure. It can be terribly frustrating to the scientists and engineers when a critical problem cannot be solved. From the business management aspect, it is not only frustrating but usually also financially disastrous when this happens. Therefore, can we learn anything at all from past successes and failures to help guide future decisions? And what should we do to encourage new opportunities while still taking into account that the finances have to be carefully managed.

I would suggest that the greatest risks are encountered when basic materials problems become the obstacles to success. For example, thin film Electroluminescent (EL) displays had limited success because no one could develop a blue phosphor of sufficient brightness. Field-emission displays have so far not been successful because with existing materials the field emission mechanism is too difficult to control. Therefore, I believe that if the basic materials understanding exists and the critical problems are well in hand, then the chances of success increase rather dramatically.

Suppose the materials challenges have been adequately addressed. Now are we ready to do the full business plan? I would suggest not. I think the lessons from the past tell us that an iterative approach is best. We can begin to identify some opportunities early on. But those may turn out not to be the best ones. By doing more technical development work and more concept exploration, we are likely to uncover opportunities that completely escaped us on the first pass. This additional exploration may also open doors to new ideas that may turn out to be even more important than the original concept. There is no direct path when it comes to innovation. The best we can do is to try to give it some direction and to facilitate the connection to real applications and real products. With such nurturing the “idea flowers” may blossom and grow to the size where even the competition cannot stomp them out.

I welcome your comments on the topics in this column as well as others. You may reach me directly from this web site, by e-mail at, by phone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.