Plasma Screens and the Future of Display Technology
Will plasma displays be run out of the big-screen market by one or several new technologies? Meet NED, OLED and some other new technologies that are almost ready for prime time.
In the ever-expanding arena of large-display technology, is plasma here to stay? "Plasma displays, I think, are a very awkward technology," James Jaskie, chief scientist at Motorola's Microelectronics and Physical Sciences Laboratory, told TechNewsWorld.
Plasma display panels (PDPs) use emissive technology in which the display is created by electrodes igniting the plasma gas to give off various colors, Jaskie explained. "Everyone we've talked to that makes plasma displays is eager to find another way," he said.
On the other hand, PDPs are in stores now -- albeit at prices only a few can afford -- while the Nano-Emissive Display (NED) technology that Jaskie and his team are working on is at least a year, or maybe two, away from hitting production lines.
OLED: Overnight Sensation?
Lately, Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) technology has garnered a lot of attention from display makers. Like other "new" stars, OLED has been around for a long time. Recently, its star has risen a little higher, thanks to advances both in science and in marketing.
Scientifically speaking, OLEDs are self-luminous, which means that they glow when an electrical field is applied to the electrodes coating a glass or polymer substrate. Because OLEDs don't require backlighting, diffusers or polarizers, they make highly efficient, lightweight and potentially inexpensive displays.
On a small scale, OLED is already out of the lab. Kodak's EasyShare LS633 digital camera shipped this spring with an OLED display, as did Phillips' 8894 XL electric shaver. But can OLED play well in the marketplace at large, and if so, how soon can the technology have an impact?
Janice Mahon, vice president of technology commercialization at Universal Display Corporation (UDC), said that while there are still some "lifetime issues" to resolve before OLED TV lights up your living room, significant progress has been made toward popularizing the technology. As recently as "a couple of years ago," Mahon said, she wouldn't have considered the big-screen TV market a target for OLEDs. But now she will.
"We continue to see larger and larger OLEDs," she said. "Sony showed a 24-inch diagonal in May." It was a tiled display -- consisting of several smaller screens -- but several other displays in the 17-inch range suggest screen sizes will continue to grow.
Another big step for OLEDs came this summer, Mahon told TechNewsWorld, when "it was shown that OLED probably can be integrated with Amorphous-Silicon backplanes," which are used in most large-screen displays. "Previously, it was perceived that we'd need Poly-Silicon backplanes."
The key difference, at least from a marketing viewpoint, is production cost: It's much faster, easier and therefore less expensive to create a display on Amorphous-Silicon backplanes. Marketing-wise, UDC contracted with DuPont earlier this year to develop OLED use for flexible displays -- displays that actually can be physically bent into different shapes and still project an image. DuPont has branded its use of OLED as "Olight."
NED is another promising new technology that could break into the big-screen market -- and could do it soon. While Jaskie and his team have worked on NED for nearly eight years, he said a recently developed proprietary catalyst has made mass production much more attractive.
The catalyst allows the nanoscale tubes that create the display to grow "like bristles on a hairbrush" at lower temperatures -- about half as hot as previously necessary. Jaskie said Motorola currently is talking to several potential developers that have existing Plasma production lines. Those lines could be quickly converted to produce NEDs.
"The problem NED has is that we don't have 10,000 people who know how to do it," Jaskie admits. "It's one thing to have a bunch of PhDs in a lab make it work; it's another to make it work by the millions in production." Still, he is optimistic. The NED process has fewer steps, "and the steps are easier" than those in plasma production, he said.
Owing in part to a simpler production process, and in part to the fact that NED will use cheaper electronic drivers than PDPs, NED-TV will be inexpensive. Jaskie said it's conceivable that a 60-inch NED-TV might be available for "considerably under" $3,000. When? Perhaps less than two and probably well under three years from now, he said.
For now, and for at least the next 12 to 18 months, we're going to be looking at plasma and LCDs. "We think we might see three different competing technologies: PDP, Projection, and ... the next entrants are LCDs," said Michael F. Ciesniski, president of the U.S. Display Consortium (USDC), an industry consortium focused on flat-panel display manufacturing and infrastructure.
Big Picture, Right Now
While noting that there are difficulties with most technologies in achieving large screen sizes reliably, Gartner analyst Alan Brown probably would agree with Ciesniski. In a recent Gartner report, Brown suggested that established technologies like plasma and LCDs have staying power.
While plasma is expensive now, he told TechNewsWorld, he expects it will "take small, evolutionary steps to achieve cost reductions." Brown added that while plasma evolves, "it is possible that some [other] projection technologies, such as digital light processing, could replace plasma screens in some applications."
While considered an emerging technology in large displays, digital light processing -- or DLP -- is based on a digital micromirror device invented at Texas Instruments in 1987.
Room for Plasma
Not surprisingly, Ciesniski also sees room for plasma and many other technologies in the large-display market. "Large TVs and kiosk displays in airports are -- and are going to be -- either PDP or rear-projection systems," he said.
"These two technologies still have lots of legs," he noted, adding that he expects LCD screen sizes to compete with PDP and projection technology in the next year or so.
But rather than pushing plasma out of the market, Ciesniski said LCDs -- and then probably OLED, NED and a host of other new technologies -- will simply increase the market for large flat-panel displays, specifically big-screen TVs.
The history of popular culture supports his view. We've tuned in to commercial television for more than 60 years. Chances are, regardless of the technology behind the big picture, we'll keep watching.