Displays are getting bigger, with more pixels and lower prices. What will they look like by the end of the decade?
By the time you read this, the annual Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE, www.smpte.org) Technical Conference, held in Hollywood each year, will have wrapped up. During the four-day event, I chaired a six-paper session on Advancements in Display Technology, and there was a constant theme running through all of the presentations: These are strange times for displays, so strange that we’re redefining such things as “What is broadcast quality?” and “Why don’t two people see the same colors?”
Up until the end of the 20th century, the display business was fairly predictable. Cathode ray tube (CRT) imaging was still the king of the hill, whether in front projectors or direct-view televisions. The range of colors those displays could produce was fairly limited, but predictable. And the majority of displays still employed a squarish 4:3 aspect ratio, similar to that of early movies and also computer displays. Widescreen, high-definition video delivered over digital connections was just getting out of the starting blocks.
Fifteen years later, everything is topsy-turvy. CRTs are gone, and so are plasma displays, which were just building momentum back in 1999. We barely got used to HDTV before Ultra High Definition showed up and started muscling its way into the market. Composite video and VGA connections fought the good fight, but have folded like a card table as HDMI has taken over (with DisplayPort and now AV over IP trying to make inroads).
Widescreen imaging is here to stay on everything from computer monitors and televisions to projectors, smartphones and tablets. Display manufacturers are trying to stuff insane numbers of pixels into ever-smaller handheld displays. Meanwhile, a combination of excess fab capacity and declining TV sales is dragging prices down to the point where Ultra HDTVs may soon kick large 1080p HDTVs off the market…probably by the end of next year.
Projector manufacturers struggle to maintain market share as larger and larger LCD TVs and monitors come to market at competitive prices. A recent press release for a “fully loaded” 1080p home theater projector bragged about its sub-$1000 price tag: Ten years ago, that same projector and feature set would have cost more than $4000.
And the nexus of display manufacturing power has most definitely shifted to China. A couple of months ago, Sharp threw in the towel on its consumer television business, opting to sell the brand name to Chinese TV manufacturer Hisense, along with an assembly plant in Mexico. More recently, Chinese LED wall manufacturer Leyard bought Planar Systems of Oregon, ostensibly to make a bigger push into large emissive displays.
So where is this crazy world of displays headed? For one thing, LCD technology has captured about 99% of the worldwide television market, not to mention digital signage and pushing projectors out of the “hang and bang” spaces in classrooms and meeting rooms. Enhancements such as quantum dots for high dynamic range and expanded color gamuts are updating LCDs, as are even higher resolutions such as 5K (5120×2880) and soon-to-appear 8K (7680×4320) displays.
But the battle isn’t won yet. LG Display appears to have finally tamed the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) “beast,” rolling out a full line of high-end OLED TVs for the consumer market. Panasonic announced at IFA that it would sell a 65-inch OLED TV based on the LG Display panel.
And an increasing number of handheld displays (tablets, phablets, smartphones) feature OLED displays. We’re a few years away from seeing this technology adopted for general-purpose AV displays, but by the end of this decade, you’ll start to see OLEDs specified for specialized applications that require the characteristics of emissive displays: deep blacks, high contrast and dynamic range, wide viewing angles and accurate color.
At the other end, there will be a much slower intrusion of micro LED (direct view) displays. We’re seeing these offered now as tiled arrays that can crank out 3000 cd/m2 for indoor and outdoor use with pixel pitches in the range of 1.6 to 1.8mm. That’s about the same pitch as the earliest plasma monitors offered back in the mid-1990s. Over time, the pitches will get a lot smaller, probably in the range of 1.2 to 1mm, or slightly coarser than a 50-inch 720p/768p plasma monitor.
Notably, the companies that are manufacturing the LED arrays and driving this business are mostly Chinese, and they see big opportunities in large digital signage and displays. There are already OEM deals in place with some well known commercial AV brands, because it’s impossible to compete with the lower manufacturing and labor costs in China.
If you’re spotting a trend here, then good for you! That trend would be a long, gradual shift back to emissive display technologies (OLED, micro LED) and away from transmissive (LCD). Not that the latter is in any immediate jeopardy: LCD is still the least expensive structure for large flatscreen displays, to the point where it’s been largely commoditized. And LCD will be the delivery platform for 4K/Ultra HD into the commercial AV market for the next few years.
Hand in hand with these trends will come (a) the ability to cut LCD and then OLED panels into just about any size and shape you can imagine (think of the automotive and aerospace markets) and (b) flexible, bendable substrates for super-thin displays. We’re already seeing this trend on some phones, where the display wraps around the edges (Samsung Galaxy), and on prototype TV screens (LG’s 111-inch “warp” OLED display).
Also looming in the wings are large transparent and reflective OLED displays, as shown by Samsung this year at InfoComm. Transparent and reflective LCDs have already been here for some time, but they require a backlight array to work. Not so with OLEDs; the emitters can be manufactured on columns and rows made of transparent and reflective rare earth alloys. And they work surprisingly well, with bright, contrasty images that feature saturated colors and wide viewing angles.
Summing up; the world of displays in 2020 is going to look a lot different than it does now. (And I haven’t even touched on solid-state projection engines, beyond 8K, and virtual reality. We’ll save that for a future column!)