Laser TV Launches

Start-up Prysm demos low-power Blu-ray laser-based displays

3 min read

23 June 2010—After five years of development, Prysm, based in San Jose, Calif., has introduced a laser television. The technology is built around Prysm’s patented repurposing of Blu-ray lasers to excite red, green, and blue pixels on a screen, just as old-fashioned cathode ray tubes (CRTs) do. Unlike CRTs, however, Prysm’s "laser phosphor display" (LPD) is compact, energy efficient, and has high resolution. The company—whose outsize ambitions were reflected in a booth equal in size to Panasonic’s and Sharp’s at InfoComm earlier this month—says the technology will be competitive with LCDs and plasma screens, the dominant players in today’s HDTV market, within three to five years.

The first-gen Prysm TV (dubbed the TD1) is composed of a glass screen measuring 25 inches diagonally (63 centimeters), the inside of which is painted with tiny vertical lines of phosphor that glow red, green, or blue when hit with a soft UV laser. The TD1’s lasers sit behind the screen, pointing up toward a bank of small, rapidly moving mirrors similar to the kind used in laser printers. The mirrors scan the lasers across the screen to produce the picture.

This setup makes the display 14 inches (36 cm) thick. But it results in power consumption that no competitor can touch. Prysm’s televisions run at one-quarter the power of comparable LCDs and at one-tenth the power of plasma screens. If a display is operating 24/7—as many commercial displays do—then in just over five years, Prysm’s low energy usage will add up to tens of thousands of dollars in savings on electricity bills.

Much of Prysm’s product can be built with existing technology and does not require expensive clean rooms for making the screen. In fact, senior director of panel development David Kindler jokes that he assembled the first TD1 prototype in the company’s simple basement shop—what he calls a "carpeted fab."

"It’s just a clever integration of existing technology," says Brad Gleeson, CEO of Toronto-based design firm Vertigo Digital Displays. "When you think about the great inventions over time, it’s always one of those things where you say, ’Boy, why didn’t I think of that?’ It’s totally obvious after somebody has done it."

Don’t expect an LPD TV in your home this holiday season, however. For now, they’re just for commercial use in locations such as airports, train stations, shopping malls, and conference centers. For Gleeson, that’s not surprising. He recalls a newfangled product that appeared on the market in the mid-1990s—plasma-screen televisions. "The first plasmas were 42 inches, and we sold them for US $13 000 apiece," he says. The screens boasted a resolution of only 800 by 480 pixels. Only big commercial clients like arenas and convention halls could afford such a steep price for technology "that you can buy today at Best Buy for 800 bucks and will look 10 times better," he says.

Prysm is following the well-worn path of many fledgling technologies, Gleeson says: Work out the kinks with pricier models for corporate clients and only then, after manufacturing has been streamlined and economies of scale have kicked in, launch consumer product lines.

Patrick Tan, Prysm’s vice president of panel development and manufacturing, says the company enjoys one advantage unavailable to most start-ups: Its new technology doesn’t require a new line of parts. "One of the guiding principles of the company from early inception was, ’Use the high-tech supermarket of the world.’ " Almost nothing inside the TD1 requires new components, Tan says. The lasers, mirrors, phosphors, and other critical elements are all widely available, so Prysm’s ramp-up to large-scale production could be sooner, and the time to develop consumer products all the shorter.

Yet for all the innovation behind the LPD, Prysm’s display does have something of the look and feel of a rear-projection system—televisions that were once hyped but still can’t compete with HDTV mainstay technologies like LCD and plasma.

Randy Byrd, CEO of audiovisual consulting firm Sensory Interactive, based in Towson, Md., says this year’s InfoComm also showcased an LED-lit rear-projection display (the Christie MicroTiles), which he says, together with Prysm, shows how rapidly rear-projection technology is evolving. Neither the TD1 nor the MicroTiles suffer the low-brightness problems of old rear-projection sets. Both modules can also be seamlessly stacked to make massive video walls, something that can’t be done with old rear-projection sets, LCD TVs, and plasma HDTVs.

As a low-power technology that’s scalable to larger sizes, LPD makes the promise of laser TVs both tantalizing and, perhaps, close at hand.

About the Author

Mark Anderson is a freelance writer based in Northampton, Mass. In the May 2010 issue of IEEE Spectrum, he reviewed two recent books about two beautiful minds: a mathematician and a physicist.

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