Intel Pushes Into Home Entertainment

Liquid crystal on silicon for rear-projection HDTV is part of consumer-focused plan

21 January 2004--Drawing on its expertise in making silicon chips, Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif., is moving beyond the world of PCs into home entertainment with a chip it says will dramatically reduce the cost of big-screen televisions. The company announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nev., in January that it will start selling liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS) chips later this year. The LCOS chips will be used to create microdisplays for rear-projection TVs, allowing manufacturers to sell 50-inch high-definition television sets for less than US $1800. "This will change big-screen television economics," Intel president Paul Otellini told a CES audience.

Currently, big-screen TVs cost anywhere from $3000 to $8000. Of the rear-projection TV models, between 80 and 90 percent use cathode-ray tube technology, says David Mentley, senior vice president of analyst firm iSuppli/Stanford Resource, in Santa Clara, Calif., a technology that he believes could be used to make a big-TV screen for as little as $1200, although the quality would not be as good as that of LCOS models.

"[Intel’s involvement] is probably going to accelerate the shift toward microdisplay rear-projection televisions," Mentley says. "They’ve got the horsepower to solve any of the technical problems that need to be solved."

In typical liquid-crystal displays, such as flat-panel computer displays, the liquid crystals are sandwiched between two panes of glass. Transistors switch the orientation of the crystals, which in turn change the polarization of the light coming from behind the device. With the LCOS imager panel, one of those glass panes is eliminated and replaced with silicon, on which the transistors are built using standard semiconductor processes. The silicon is coated twice, once with a highly reflective, extremely flat layer of aluminum--exactly how flat Intel won’t say--and once, along with the glass, with a layer of polyimide, which is rubbed to create narrow grooves that will hold the liquid crystals. The glass and silicon are placed together with the grooves at an angle to one another.

Instead of the transmissive, two-glass-plate technology, the LCOS imager is reflective. Light from a source, such as a metal halide lamp, shines through the glass plate and is reflected off the aluminum layer. The silicon transistors control how the liquid crystals modulate the light, which is then fed through a lens and onto the screen for viewing.

Also, in transmissive technologies, the size of the pixels is limited by the size of the transistors, which block a portion of the light in each pixel. Because the transistors in the LCOS setup are hidden behind the aluminum layer, it’s easier to shrink the pixels and get sharper resolution. "There’s nothing to occlude light," says Kevin Cornelius, general manager of display-technology operations at Intel.

He says LCOS can provide the HD-1 resolution that is common today, with displays of 1280 by 720 pixels. HD-2 resolution, of 1920 by 1080 pixels, is also possible, he says.

The current Intel devices are based on 0.18-µm silicon technology, which is two generations older than the technology now used for computer chips. Otellini says Intel will move to 0.13-µm technology for LCOS in the first half of 2005.

"As we go to the next generation, just like it happened in microprocessors, things get better--in this case, pixel quality goes up, things get smaller, and things get cheaper," Otellini said. "We’re going to be able to continue to scale this and have many, many devices built around it."

One key to keeping the cost down, Cornelius says, is building the rear-projection TVs with only one imager panel. An alternative system typically uses three panels, one each for red, green, and blue.

"It’s a pretty simple design," agrees analyst Mentley. "It doesn’t look like it’s a real stretch for the silicon at all, in terms of [circuit] geometry."

That simplicity may be the key to making inroads in a marketplace that so far hasn’t embraced LCOS-based microdisplays. In the past couple years, several TV makers have announced LCOS products but were forced to pull back on their plans because of the difficulty of making the chips without flaws in large quantities. At issue have been pixel defects, which are magnified along with the projected image, Mently says, as well as the crispness of images and the sharpness of the colors well as . Intel’s chip-making expertise has probably helped it overcome yield issues, analysts say.

Even before Intel’s announcement, competition in LCOS was beginning to heat up. Royal Philips Electronics NV, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, introduced a 2-million-pixel display and opened a new production facility last autumn. And smaller companies have moved forward as well. MicroDisplay Corp. of San Pablo, Calif., raised $18 million in venture capital this month in its bid to ramp up production. Meanwhile, Hana Microelectronics Public Co., the parent of Hana Microdisplay Technologies Inc., Twinsburg, Ohio, told the Bangkok Post that it would invest in a new LCOS production line at its plant in Ayyutthaya, Thailand.

LCOS will be competing with microdisplays fashioned after Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc.’s digital light processing technology, which is also the basis of most digital projectors. Mentley doesn’t see that one technology is the clear winner. "There’s probably room for all of them," he says.

Intel, meanwhile, is looking to create a whole economy of consumer electronics based around their chips. In the same week that it announced the LCOS chips, the company said it was starting the Digital Home Fund to invest $200 million in start-ups that create new home entertainment technology.

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