Published in September 2006

Deciphering Display Trends
By Neal Weinstock

Autostereoscopic 3D, OLEDs and finding the elusive profit.
Panasonic now claims bragging rights to the world’s largest PDP at 103 inches.

     The Society for Information Display's conventions are coming-out parties for display technologies, products and more than the usual scuttlebutt. The most recent US conference, in San Francisco in June, was no exception. Manufacturers go there to swap information and get some sense of pricing trends for the next few months and design trends for the next few years, and they got them. And we're going to share.
     Industry consolidation, LCDs, 3D, OLEDs, LED backlights, new manufacturing techniques and pricing, pricing, pricing were top news. The bottom line from now through the end of 2006 is clear: No manufacturer is really making money in the display business, so prices should continue to fall even as demand for flat screens of all sorts grows radically. Does this make any sense?
     It does if you see display manufacturing in the light of history. The governments of South Korea, Taiwan and China are pouring uncountable subsidies into display manufacturing, in a complex political competition that is showing some cracks, but has no real end in sight. But when something can't continue indefinitely, eventually there will be an end.

Huge Glut
     And then what seems today like a rapid down-cycle in pricing will turn into a huge glut for a few years, thereafter perhaps to repeat the cycle once or twice-even a few times-but eventually turn into a more rational profit-oriented business with more stable pricing. This has happened before in other electronics product areas, not to mention, in one country or another, steel, cars, coal, wine…the list of industries into which such political hopes are put to eventual disastrous effect is long and, in the same sense as having many hangovers, educational.
     But how far off is the bubble-bursting? Several years, at least. Why? Because there is so much technology ferment in displays, combined with so much demand in many different applications. We who buy, use, build systems around and invest in displays have to ride this bubble for awhile.
     Riding the bubble involves understanding:

  • Not only which technology is right for a job at hand, but which will be perceived by customers as the right technology for that job in a year or two or three. For this is what will make the lasting impression of how good your work was.
  • What manufacturer support you need for a given project, and which manufacturers likely are to be able to provide that support for whatever timeframe in which the support is required.
  • Some manufacturers are focusing on commercial AV, with differing combinations of displays and other technologies and services, as the consumer market for PDPs and LCDs gets crowded. Are these commercial AV-oriented offerings something that can improve a reseller's bottom line, are they something you should specify but not resell or are they competition?
  • As in any market, you have to know the price curve for each type of product--in other words, where suppliers' real best price is today on LCD, PDP, LCoS and other technologies, and where it will be at important junctures for your business going forward.
     So there's our Request for Information. It's easier specified than filled. We'll try to supply at least some of the answers from what SID told us.

3D May Change Your Life
     Probably the most interesting way manufacturers are trying to add value to all displays, with first apps inevitably in commercial AV, is 3D. At least 15 companies worldwide, according to German market researcher Christoph Bungert, are developing "autostereoscopic" 3D displays; that is, displays that don't require viewers to wear funny glasses to see the effect. At SID, Toshiba, Sanyo and Philips talked about their technologies; other well-known companies developing autostereo 3D include Elsa, Kodak, Sharp and Siemens. Philips and Toshiba, of all these, seem closest to supplying commercial AV with products that people will want to deploy widely.
     Toshiba's is, by far, the most unique solution. Essentially, the company has thought carefully about what current technologies make possible, and uses the same basic system that everybody else does for autostereo 3D. Toshiba has gone beyond this by also developing software that turns the problem on its head. Or, rather, turns the display from the wall to a table.

Seem to Stand Up
     In other words, Toshiba's software allows objects to seem to stand up from a horizontal screen, rather than out from or behind a wall-mounted one. The distance across the screen thus adds to the sense of depth and places objects in a perceptual space that seems more natural and comprehensible to viewers.
     By projecting multiple images of an object seen from different angles, the technology allows viewers to perceive 3D images without wearing special glasses. Toshiba's software uses 10 or more views of an object (live-action or animated), and processes and reproduces the images in 3D, with a 30° viewing angle-very wide for 3D. Toshiba also developed middleware and dedicated circuitry that supports fast playback of the images with only a graphics card. A rather pricey, low-temperature polycrystalline Si-TFT LCD panel was used in the prototype, but a company spokesperson said, "We can use other panel technologies that meet both high-resolution and low-cost targets."
     The prototype was shown in HD resolution, but Toshiba says, depending on the complexity of the image, even plain old SD res can be used. Among the applications Toshiba envisions are arcade games, e-learning, simulations of buildings and landscapes, and 3D menus in restaurants.
     Philips already is selling displays with its WOWvx 3D technology to commercial AV, and hopes to bring prices down to mass levels for consumer products in a couple of years. The company's 3D system is typical of most being developed, in terms of technology, though Philips seems further along in commercialization than anybody else.

Lenticular Screens
     All current autostereo 3D systems, including Philips', use lenticular screens that, essentially, present two images at once. You've seen the basic effect your whole life in little toys that show one image from one angle of view, another when you move your eyes or the screen. In such toys, images are printed on either side of little ridges, and the display as a whole is made up of a series of those ridges. To give an appearance of a well-defined video image on such a display, twice the light and twice the resolution are needed, compared to a standard 2D display, and also some fancy image processing to make sure the right lines of pixels represent the right parts of each half of the stereo image.

Philips’ diagram shows a calculation of the effective resolution of a slanted view of a lenticular screen used for showing 3D images. Less than a third of pixels within the viewing area are used for a particular frame in this case.

     So, as brighter and brighter screens in higher and higher definition become available, and as those screens tend more and more to be driven by microprocessors (which are deployed in the first place to decode compressed video and audio, but also can be used for decoding 3D software), 3D at acceptable levels of brightness and contrast/color detail becomes more and more possible.
     But for any given levels of brightness and contrast for a 3D display, the same display could be showing twice those levels in 2D. Is the 3D effect worth that cost? Until, perhaps, 10 or 20 years from now, when we have more resolution and brightness than we know what to do with, the answer must probably remain "sometimes," to be decided by some creative designer's concept of a special application. Which implies that 3D is essentially a commercial AV resource, not a consumer product…at least until someone comes up with the killer 3D consumer app.

Speaking of Philips
     Two other big pieces of news came out of Philips at SID. The company decided to cut its losses on its LG Philips partnership with Lucky Goldstar and get out of display manufacturing. Philips will continue to sell devices made by that company, but won't own the plant. This is an inevitable decision, given that the respected Korean market researcher DisplaySearch says LG Philips (the second-largest maker of flat-panel displays) probably isn't profitable. In fact, they say probably no maker of flat-panel displays is profitable, including even top dog Samsung. Given that governments across East Asia are subsidizing ever more display manufacturing out of national pride (and a reasonable desire to employ people), Philips probably is going to be in the vanguard of a trend here.

The European Union subsidizes the giant Airbus 380. South Korea subsidizes giant displays. To each country its own white elephant.

     Just as Philips now is focusing on selling displays sourced from other manufacturers, but differentiating its product with software and technology add-ons such as 3D, so the small American company Planar Systems has bought digital-signage software company Clarity Visual, and is focusing on commercial markets.
     In other Philips news, LG.Philips revealed a new manufacturing line for eight 42-inch LCDs at once, hitting plasma's most important niche. Right now, if you want to buy a 42-inch flat panel with brightness sufficient for most commercial use, PDP is what you have to get. That size is a sweet spot for manufacturers and buyers alike. On the consumer side, this is because 42-inch widescreens fit on walls pretty perfectly to replace 32- to 35-inch CRTs, and show off HDTV as well as most people will want in the average-size home viewing room. (Sixty inches may look nicer, but it's much more expensive and much harder to find room for.)
     On the manufacturing side, it's a very efficient size panel to make. And in commercial AV, it's a great size for lots of signage. So, we'll have well-priced LCDs to play with here, too, in the near future…which probably will only force PDP prices down further, keeping the technology in the lead in commercial deployment.
     General wisdom at SID was that the standard 42-inch EDTV PDP monitor (without TV tuner) most favored by commercial AV will have come down from a wholesale cost of about $1700 to $2000, in Summer, to as low as $1200 by year's end. For 2007, the manufacturers really are hoping hard that commercial AV and consumers alike demand HD resolution, which should keep prices from falling too hard.

From PDP to LCD…to OLEDs
     So LCDs look to take some share from PDP, until OLEDs come along.
     At SID, DuPont showed OLED solution processing that it claims can produce a 15.4-inch OLED at 40% of the cost of LCD panels.
     The Fraunhofer Institute (the German tech developer largely responsible for the MP3) and Samsung showed dual-sided OLEDs with images viewable from both sides. This development is mostly about mobile phones and, eventually, mobile video players, but it's easy to imagine very cool commercial AV apps once these are available at larger screen sizes.
     Qualcomm showed its iMoD technology (acquired with the company's purchase of Iridigm in 2004), which filters out ambient or non-optimal light to make displays viewable in bright sunlight. For Qualcomm, with most of its business in mobile telephony, the application for this is obvious. But for commercial AV, too, greater brightness in daylight is tremendously important.
     Given all of this new technology coming in, some of the reasoning behind the continual announcements of multi-billion-dollar investments in new display manufacturing plants becomes apparent. There may be a glut in the market, but won't bigger, brighter, more colorful, longer-lived displays sell better than those old-fashioned displays made at the plant you just finished building?
     There is, after all, some method to the madness of all the investment in new display production capacity, even in the face of declining prices. Get on the right side of the trend, and you can make a few bucks.

Neal Weinstock edits Sound & Communications’ IT/AV Report and is president of Weinstock Media Analysis, a market research firm in professional audio and video since 1993. He helped found BridgeCo, a Swiss maker of audio networking semiconductors.

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