Display Week 2011

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for

IEEE Spectrum

’s “Techwise Conversations.”

The Society for Information Display may not be on your—pardon the play on words—radar screen, but its members are the people who drive display research, design, and manufacturing, and its annual convention is the go-to place to find out what the future of displays is shaping up to be.

In other words, if you want to know what will be on Best Buy’s shelves this holiday shopping season, go to the giant Consumer Electronics Show. But if you want to know what we’ll be seeing the year after that and the one after that, Display Week— which just ended on Friday, May 20th—is the place to go.

And so go to Display Week we did. Or at least my guest today, Alfred Poor, did. He’s a technologist and a journalist, a longtime writer for PC Magazine, a sometime host of the “Personal Computer Show” on Pacifica Radio, and as his bio on Twitter put it, he “has written about technology for more than 25 years, and continues to be amazed by new shiny, sparkly things.” He joins me by phone. Alfred, welcome to the podcast.

Alfred Poor: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

Steven Cherry: Alfred, let’s cut to the chase. What were the newest, shiniest, sparkliest things at Display Week?

Alfred Poor: Well, I think the first topic that I think most people would be interested in is 3-D television. It’s an area of hot debate, and there were actually a number of interesting developments on that front at the show this year. The big thing is the continued battle between the active glasses—the shutter-glasses camp—and then what they call the patterned retarder, the kind that lets you wear polarized passive glasses—the same that you would wear in a movie theater. The problem is that some people are active in both camps. But the mudslinging and the hyperbole about the technology claims has reached a fever pitch that we haven’t seen since the days of Blu-ray versus HD DVD.

Steven Cherry: So who was showing what exactly at Display Week?

Alfred Poor: Well, Samsung was showing a bunch of panels that were based on active technology—the active-shutter glasses. LG is one of the big proponents of the patterned retarder approach, but they make the panels for the Vizio television sets that were shown at CES that caused such a stir because they can use the passive glasses and yet they’re priced a lot lower than some of the active-glass solutions, even though it has an extra layer of film inside for light management, and that means additional manufacturing costs. So the suspicion is that LG is probably eating a bunch of the cost trying to buy some market share in the 3-D space. A lot of people were also showing “autostereoscopic” 3-D displays. Toshiba had one, the Fraunhofer Institute from Germany was showing a couple, and these are the kind that allow you to see stereoscopic 3-D image without wearing glasses at all.

Steven Cherry: So let’s just review. The active glasses cost more money because there’s an actual chip inside the glass, and they’re shifting your vision from one eye to the next very rapidly. The passive glasses don’t do that, but therefore sometimes there’s like a little bleeding between the eyes, and so the image quality isn’t so good and the range isn’t so good.

Alfred Poor: Well, both of them have cross-talk problems. Basically the bottom line between the two: Active glasses, the cost is in the glasses, and passive glasses, the cost is in the panel. Both have extra costs, both have technical issues with cross talk, and some of the problems that you cite. It’s not clear which one’s going to win. One thing that’s pretty clear is the no-glasses type is not going to win anytime soon. Everybody I talked to at the show who was being honest about the market agrees that the no-glasses solutions are fine for a single viewer but if you have multiple viewers, it’s not going to work in a living room. It will work for digital signage, that sort of thing, or maybe some specialty markets like medical applications, but we’re not going to see no-glasses televisions that are affordable and worth having for a long time.

Steven Cherry: So 3-D isn’t new, but there were new 3-D developments, and I guess that was true for LED backlighting as well. Maybe start by reminding us by why backlighting is important.

Alfred Poor: Sure. LCDs—which are now the big dog in display technology, everything from mobile phones all the way up through giant flat-screen televisions—they don’t emit any light on their own. The only way you can see an image is to put a bright light behind them. In fact, your typical LCD absorbs 95 percent or more of the light that’s coming through it, even when it’s showing a full white screen. So you really need a lot of light behind it. Up until now everybody has used cold cathode fluorescent lamps to produce this light, and they’re affordable and they work well and they’re reliable and we know how to do it. The problem is that they also contain mercury, which is a big problem as an environmental hazard. And while they’re efficient, there are alternatives that can produce more light from less electricity, and one of those choices is LEDs. Most notebooks now use LED backlights; certainly any mobile device, like a phone or an MP3 player, uses LEDs for the backlight. And there’s a big shift now going on in televisions to move over to LEDs as well for energy saving. Also you can put the LEDs along the edge of the panel and light it from the side using sophisticated light guides, and that’s how they get these incredibly thin but very large LCD TVs that you can buy. So they save money, better for the environment, and look sexy ’cause they’re thin.

Steven Cherry: And I guess 3M was showing something at the display.

Alfred Poor: 3M was showing something that was extremely interesting. And this is really techie but could be an enormous game changer. Basically, when you have an LED backlight or an edge light, there are four or five different light management layers that you need in there. You need a light guide, you need a diffuser to spread the light around so there are no hot spots, you need a [unclear] to collect the light and steer it so it goes out straight through the LCD panel. So you have all these films that are hanging around behind the LCD panel. Basically, 3M did the impossible and came up with a way to get rid of all of those and just have a single combination film that actually gets glued to the back of the LCD panel, and then there’s an air gap and there’s a reflector behind that, and all the light then gets mixed in there and sent out through the LCD panel. It has enormous advantages. One simple one is it gets rid of materials, so it costs less to build, and it costs less to assemble, and it weighs less. They’re actually talking about taking 3 kilograms out of your typical 55-inch LCD television, so then you start saving money in shipping costs too, so it just keeps going. It also allows you to use fewer LEDs to light the panel, because it spreads the light out so evenly. You can space them—instead of the standard 12 millimeters apart, you can actually space them 60 millimeters apart, so you can cut down on your part count for your edge light, or you can use that to have more LEDs. But it makes it more reliable, because if one fails, you won’t notice the difference. So it’s a real game changer for how LED backlights can be built for large screens.

Steven Cherry: Did you get a sense for when we would actually see televisions with this new technology?

Alfred Poor: It’s introduction now. They didn’t say when there’s going to be a commercial device out, but my guess is it won’t be long. The thing is, for a consumer you probably won’t know the difference; it’s just going to be a nice LED TV. But the big thing for the manufacturers is that this is another step that helps keep cutting costs out, and cost is the name of the game with flat-panel televisions.

Steven Cherry: So it seems to be a year for new news about somewhat established technologies, and I guess that was true again for organic light emitting diodes or OLEDs as they’re called. The big deal with OLED displays is that they don’t need backlighting at all?

Alfred Poor: Right. Unlike LCDs, they’re more like a plasma display in that they emit light on their own. The difference from both of them, though, is the actual emitting of the light takes place in an incredibly thin, a very thin film layer—I mean, less than the thickness of the glass that it’s built on. So you can come up with incredibly thin displays that are really no thicker than a sheet of glass. The interesting thing this year is that there wasn’t a lot being said about OLED. Two of the major players, Samsung and LG, didn’t have anything to show, and that seemed a little unusual. The consensus was they both decided to go dark because they’re both very close to coming out with commercial products, and so they don’t want to tip their hand too early. LG has committed to building a gen-8 plant—gen 8 refers to the size of the class substrates that they’ll use. Right now the biggest OLED plants are gen 4.5, so this is significantly bigger than the current plants that are used to make mobile handset displays. This new fabrication line, gen 8, will be big enough to make 55-inch displays at presumably a reasonable efficiency, so it’s pretty exciting news. That’s supposed to come on line the end of this year, beginning of next year, so hopefully next year we’ll have a lot of new panels to talk about.

Steven Cherry: Now both of these companies, LG and Samsung, are Korean companies. Is that a coincidence, or do you think there’s any significance to that?

Alfred Poor: I think they really are driving a lot of the major innovation in the display industry right now; they’ve got the money. We don’t have any large display companies in this country. In Japan, the major companies continue to struggle. Sharp is one of the largest; they’ve come up with some innovations, but they’re in a position where they’re pulling back from a lot of their investment. So is Panasonic. Panasonic has primarily been plasma up till now, but that market continues to dwindle. They’re doing some more with LCD and other display technologies, but again, they’re pulling back from some of their investment. So it’s really the Taiwanese, the Chinese, and the Koreans who are out in front, and the Koreans have historically put a lot of money into research and continue to do so. So I think that’s probably where a lot of their lead comes from.

Steven Cherry: Now in the OLED world, there was some news from Universal Display Corp. Is that right?

Alfred Poor: Yes. Uh huh. One of the big problems with OLED materials is that they don’t last long, and the other problem is the different colors age at different rates. So it becomes difficult to maintain an even color balance in the panels that you create. UDC [Universal Display Corporation] is a company that’s over in New Jersey, and they’re one of the leading companies in terms of developing the emissive materials that are used in OLED displays. They have licensees all over the world using their materials, and they’re focusing on basically the fundamental research and development and then licensing to others. The interesting thing is that they have now developed a green-yellow OLED material that they’ve rated at 1.4 million hours until it puts out half as much light, which is the standard way of measuring in the industry, so that’s an enormous gain—at least double what they were talking about last year. The problem is that the other colors aren’t up to that level; their solid green isn’t that high. The big problem with all OLEDs is the blue material, because that tends to age very quickly. Right now, UDC’s light blue—which again isn’t as pure blue as you’d need for some applications—but their light blue is only up to 20 000 hours, so there’s still a lot of work to be done in the blue area. The interesting thing is that there’s a lot of good work being done using OLEDs for lighting as well as in displays. The exciting part there is that the lighting presumably will be able to fund a lot of the building of the infrastructure, which will drive costs down and ultimately will make OLED cheaper for display applications as well.

Steven Cherry: So basically, they’re a supplier of materials that go into televisions and regular lighting as well.

Alfred Poor: Right, yeah. At this point the same materials go into OLEDs for lighting and displays. DuPont had a very interesting display where they had a bunch of their 4-inch lighting tiles, and by throwing a switch, you could change the color of the light that was coming out of it. So if you want to change the mood, if you want to change the color temperature of the light, it can be done without having to change the bulbs like you would with a normal incandescent or fluorescent lamp.

Steven Cherry: Well, it sounds like it was a pretty busy week for you.

Alfred Poor: Oh, yeah.

Steven Cherry: You’ll be doing a piece for the magazine as well that goes into these technologies in a little bit more depth, so we’ll have a link to that eventually on the podcast page. So I guess that’s a reminder to any podcast subscribers to check the website from time to time, and speaking of which, we just made some changes to the podcast to make it easier to find it on iTunes. So I guess I’m sending Web listeners to iTunes and iTunes subscribers to the Web. Anyway, Alfred, we’ll look forward to your magazine piece, and thanks for your time today.

Alfred Poor: Oh, it was my pleasure. Anytime.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with tech journalist Alfred Poor about the cool new display technologies that were displayed at Display Week 2011, which just concluded in Los Angeles. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 24 May 2011.
Follow us on Twitter @spectrumpodcast
Segment Producer: Ariel Bleicher
Audio Engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.