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December 03, 2008

The Future of Display Technology

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Future Office While wandering the isles at our local department store in an effort to complete my holiday shopping, I had to pause in the home electronics section and admire the collection of large format LCD and plasma HDTV systems on display. I slipped back in time to when I was a young engineer and could only imagine displays that large and thin... and here in front of me was an assortment of gigantic HDTV displays that you could hang on a wall.  What was even more interesting is that most of these large displays consumed more energy than their predecessors - the cathode ray tube or CRT based TVs.  In a world that is becoming far more energy conscious it made me wonder what will succeed these marvels of engineering... here are my predictions.

My first guess would be to see Sequential Frame LCD technology evolve from color filter based LCD displays.  The big hurdle here is producing LCD material that is fast enough to prevent aliasing or artifacts. SFLCD uses RGB LEDs as the back light and LCD glass without the color filters.  The frame rate is much faster than the 60 or 120 Hz of today’s LCD technology since each frame of the image that is scanned by the electronics represents a single primary color (red, green, blue). The primary color frames are repeated multiple times per visual frame (the full color frame your eye sees). The persistence of the human eye integrates the primary colors into a full color frame. Since there are no color filters, the pixels can actually be larger (bigger displays) or the display can provide higher resolution using the same glass.

The biggest benefit of SFLCD is the power required for the system.  In today’s modern LCD displays, approximately 85% of the back light energy is absorbed by the color filters and results in heat.  To have enough light to view the image in a sunlit room, the display must have a back light that is 6 times brighter in order to produce enough full color light at the viewer’s location.  SFLCD technology removes the filters and the power loss associated with them resulting in a tremendous improvement in energy efficiency.  A large format LCD HDTV will consume around 500 watts power where a SFLCD would use roughly 90 watts (assumes 20 watts for the electronics).

My next pick would be the emergence of the pico-projector.  This technology is fairly new and gives portable devices large screen capability.  The idea is to use a MEMS mirror moving millions of times per second to simultaneously scan red, green and blue lasers in a raster method (like a CRT) to form a complete image.  Theoretically it can be made into a module around the size of a sugar cube complete with the lasers.  The current technology doesn’t provide a great deal of brightness due to the laser efficiency, but I’m sure that will improve with time.

The neat thing about these little wonders is that they may become standard on personal mobile devices (PMDs) - I really can’t call them cell phones anymore. Imagine walking into a customer to do your sales pitch and you pull out your PMD complete with the PowerPoint presentation stored.  You lay it down on the table pointing it toward the wall and project the presentation without any additional hardware.  Using your Bluetooth ear piece, you click through the presentation.  When you’re done, you put it back in your pocket and seal the deal. 

There are many other entertainment uses as well (as you can imagine) and I can see a day when there are two of these projectors in PMDs - one for the display and one for a virtual keyboard projected onto the desk.  A camera watches where your fingers go and a strong click from the PMD provides tactile feed-back while you type.  I think that would take a little while to use efficiently, but it sure beats carrying your laptop all over the place!

The last display technology that I think will dramatically change power consumption and provide amazingly large displays are Organic LEDs or OLEDs. This technology uses a thick film process to deposit light emitting polymers onto a substrate which could be glass or plastic. The panels could be very thin and flexible providing small roll-up or large curved displays. Since each pixel emits light, the viewing angle dramatically improves as well.  Currently the technology has issues with a limited lifespan of around 10,000 hours. However my money is on this technology becoming the successor to most others in both small and large format displays. OLEDs can be lower cost due to simplified manufacturing processes.

So there are my predictions on the future of displays. I’m waiting for that wall size OLED unit so I can finally have that office with a view... even if it’s only a virtual window. Till next time!