CES 08: Next-Gen Flat Panels

  • It’s been axiomatic in the AV industry for several years running that the consumer electronics market is now the driver of the evolution of video displays. This is mainly a matter of the economies of scale on the consumer side overwhelming those of the smaller commercial AV space. So on the supply side, LCD panels, for example–used in everything from cell phone displays to washing machine user panels to flat panels for the boardroom and classroom–are churned out in numbers so huge that their momentum will threaten to swamp competing flat panel technologies that can’t be produced by the kilometer.
  • So at the biggest, and first, “AV” trade show in U.S. each year, it can be hard to separate the truly innovative technology introductions from those that are simply riding production-efficiency waves or, conversely, acting as vaporware placemarkers for the consumer electronic giants who need to reserve market share for an uncertain future where consumers’ tastes and production costs could change quickly.
  • Enough economics, let’s cut to the chase: CES 2008, which wrapped last Thursday in Las Vegas, offered more than the usual glimpses of a future that is coming on fast. The three trends that stood out for me:
  • Although LCD panels look on the surface to be winning the “flat” display race, some intriguing new options are coming on line–and some older ones are raising the bar with features that LCD is not ideally suited for.
  • The LED-based illumination trend that is revolutionizing the theatrical lighting world is coming to displays–even to video projection.
  • Third, the scramble among content providers (broadcast networks for example) to get content directly to screens: cell phones, displays in the home, to digital signage displays in public spaces and retail, is heating up. This CES show was the first one where this Content trend at times was more pronounced than the actual new product features from the manufacturers.
  • On the flat display front, CES brought the usual forays into higher res from–who else–Sony. Sony has been floating 4K resolution at shows for several years, and at their booth, the most impressive new technology for my book was a 4K resolution LCD panel. Is 4K necessary for for digital signage? Never say never. Case in point: Sony’s demo had the 4K panel showing, in one segment, four 1080P images on one screen.
  • But the star of the Sony booth was the “the industry’s first Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) television in the United States,” according to Sony. The 11-inch diagonal XEL-1 model is 3 millimeters thin and offers picture quality with extremely high contrast. “The launch of an OLED TV is one of the most important industry landmarks,” said Randy Waynick, senior vice president of Sony Electronics’ Home Products Division. “Not only does the technology change the form factor of television, it delivers flawless picture quality that will soon become the standard against which all TVs are measured.” Nice thought… and, indeed, at the Sony press conference, I stood side-by-side with jaded AV journalists who were in awe of an 11-inch screen. Hard to believe. It was all due to this OLED panel’s remarkable contrast ratio. 1,000,000:1, supposedly. It looked like it, and this contrast ratio fooled a lot of folks in attendance into thinking that the image was “sharper” (it wasn’t; in fact, there were some fuzzy edges), more “high-resolution” (it was 1080P, no big deal these days). Sony also had a prototype 27 inch model on display.
  • Display gurus have been anticipating OLED for years. The OLED display panel uses low power levels since the light-emitting structure of the panel eliminates the need for a separate light source. This could be a market-driving factor as governments seek to impose energy standards on gear.
  • Sharp said at CES that they are exploring OLED, but also alluded to problems with the technology. The expected life of an OLED screen is just three to four years, said a Sharp executive at CES, and they added that they won't consider an OLED display product until its expected lifetime is at least 10 years. It's also difficult more difficult to mass-produce OLED panels in the large sizes, but this is at the end of the day a chicken and egg question. Economy of scale follows market acceptance.
  • Samsung also showed two OLED screens at CES, 14-inch and 31-inch units, but said that they don’t plan to market for at least another year or so.
  • In the Display world, the other technology that has been coming on is LED-based illumination. Not to confuse with big LED walls (Barco, Lighthouse, etc) where one LED emitter = one pixel. I’m talking about using just a few each, turbo-charged/high brightness Red, Green, and Blue LEDs as an alternative to a lamp, for a flat panel or for a video projector.
  • We’ve seen the demos at CES for a couple of years, of LED-based LCD panels. And of course, Samsung has been selling LED-based DLP HD televisions for several years. (Using just one each RGB LED’s in place of a bulb for a one-chip DLP engine eliminates the need for a color wheel.)
  • After seeing these LED-based LCD panels and LED-based DLP TVs at CES for several years, I got a different perspective this year when I went to a private demo in a suite at the Mirage, of the technology at the heart of these systems.
  • Luminus Devices showed me a variety of both consumer and professional display products illuminated by their PhlatLight LED technology, including large screen LCD backlight units, projection TVs and several categories of front projectors.
  • With fewer LEDs required, the PhlatLight technology reduces the cost and complexity of large screen LCD backlighting, enabling enhanced brightness and color uniformity over the life of the TV. Because it is edge-illuminated, it also enables thinner LCD TV designs.
  • They also showed PhlatLight-powered LED DLP TVs from Samsung.
  • The new 67” model from Samsung, which was also on display at the Samsung booth and at the TI/DLP booth, is the largest LED-illuminated rear projection TV available. (These new models are the third-generation LED DLP TVs illuminated by PhlatLight LEDs… Samsung has in fact been selling these units in mass at Best Buy, Circuit City, etc.)
  • Most intriguing, Luminus showed a home theater front projector prototype powered by their LEDs, producing over 700 ANSI lumens, and the front projection system is on track to break the 1,000 lumen barrier in 2008. This could enable home cinema front projector manufacturers to provide the benefits of LED technology, which include “instant on” operation, ultra high contrast, uniform brightness and wide color gamut performance with the elimination of the need to replace lamps during the life of the product.
  • The Content wars, which we have been monitoring for years, and which are propelling the boom in digital signage, broke out at CES this year. Will electronic equipment suppliers now become involved in content distribution? They’d love to be…. But it isn’t happening this year, at least not on the consumer front. Stay tuned on the retail/digital signage front: that’s the front lines, and where it will happen more quickly.