Displays Go for Sharper Image

Outlook: New display technologies offer sharper pictures and support for 3-D in some devices. But price and performance issues will limit them to specific niches in the near term.

Computer vendors are always introducing faster processors, bigger disk drives and more memory, but monitors have been fairly stable. LCDs are slowly replacing CRT displays on the desktop, but both technologies are actually decades old. Now two new display technologies promise better image quality for some applications, although neither will replace current desktop displays anytime soon.


The display technology making the greatest advance is organic light-emitting diodes (OLED). Based on research by Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., OLEDs are just hitting the market in small electronic devices. Although image quality is stunning, acceptance thus far has been slow. But it will become a $3 billion market by 2009, predicts Kimberly Allen, an analyst at research firm iSuppli/Stanford Resources in El Segundo, Calif.

Since OLEDs share core technology with LCDs, manufacturers can leverage the same manufacturing processes. But there is one key difference: LCD screens contain a fluorescent backlight, and the LCD acts as a shutter to selectively block that light. In contrast, OLEDs directly emit light. "You can think of OLED as an array of light bulbs, while LCDs have one big light bulb and a series of imperfect shutters," says Dan Gisser, Kodak's director of strategic marketing for OLED products.

OLEDs offer sharper and brighter colors than LCDs and CRTs. The pixels have microsecond response times and reproduce motion without smearing. OLED screens also have a wider viewing angle than LCDs. And since they don't require a backlight, displays can be half the thickness of LCDs and can be used in flexible displays. Theoretically, the devices should consume less electricity. And since they don't contain the mercury of LCD backlighting or the large quantities of lead found in CRTs, OLEDs don't have those disposal liabilities.

So when will OLEDs hit the desktop? Current OLEDs are limited to applications such as cell phones, car radios and one Kodak digital camera. Gisser says commercial display products are three to six years out.

Others aren't as optimistic. Barry Young, an analyst at Austin-based market research firm DisplaySearch,, says he isn't sure users will ever see the technology used in general-purpose computer displays.

The problem with using them in displays lies not in scaling up the screen size—manufacturers have already exhibited 20-in. displays—but with the relative instability of the chemicals used in OLEDs. They degrade with use. Although current designs last longer than earlier ones, average display lifetimes are still only about 8,000 hours. At that rate, a OLED display on a PC that stayed on around the clock would last less than a year. And that's when running color graphics. When running a typical office application with black text on a white background, Young says, the expected life drops by 90% because the pixels in the white portion of the screen remain continuously illuminated.

"Clearly, OLEDs are not ready for use in monitors or televisions," says Gisser. "They need to last at least 10 times longer."

3-D Without the Glasses

But if OLEDs aren't ready for the desktop, a new generation of 3-D displays are. Last September, Sharp Corp. released its Actius RD3D notebook, which includes an active-matrix color LCD that switches between 2-D and 3-D display modes. The RD3D's screen looks like other LCD displays, but it can emit light at different angles so the viewer's eyes see a slightly different image.

Sharp's Actius RD3D presents a 3-D image to the user without the need to wear special glasses. (Image is simulated.)
Sharp's Actius RD3D presents a 3-D image to the user without the need to wear special glasses. (Image is simulated.)
A traditional active-matrix display includes a set of diodes distributed across a wire grid behind the LCD glass. These diodes form the basic pixels, or light elements, that make up an image. A 3-D display adds a second matrix, called a parallax barrier. The second matrix stays transparent when operating in 2-D mode. But when the user pushes the 3-D button, the switching LCD sends alternate pixels to the left and right eyes to create the 3-D effect.

The RD3D also includes software from DDD Group PLC in Santa Monica, Calif., that translates existing 2-D images into a 3-D format compatible with the display. The software works with high-end computer-aided design and chemical engineering packages and converts Microsoft PowerPoint graphics.

Ian Matthew, 3-D business development manager at Sharp Systems of America in Mahwah, N.J., says RD3D's initial market will be in the pharmaceutical, architectural, chemical and automotive industries. Many companies in those industries already use virtual reality software in the design process. "Automotive manufacturers are using virtual reality systems, since a computer model is cheaper and faster to develop and modify than a real mock-up," he says. "This gives them the full experience without having to wear the special glasses."

An OLED display (right) offers a brighter, sharper picture and wider viewing angle than one using a traditional LCD (left).
An OLED display (right) offers a brighter, sharper picture and wider viewing angle than one using a traditional LCD (left).
Since there is minimal difference in the manufacturing process between a 3-D and a normal 2-D LCD, the RD3D, at $2,999, costs only about $700 more than a similarly equipped 2-D laptop.

Robin Nixon, who is developing a technology forum site called WebMasterHeadQuarters, is an early adopter of RD3D. "It was the first sub-$20,000 piece of equipment of its type, so we wanted to evaluate its potential to make 3-D Web sites," he explains. Nixon has been testing the system using Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Virtual Java Runtime software and is compiling a list of all commercial games that will run in 3-D out of the box. He says anything written in Direct3-D should run on the system, and DDD Group CEO Chris Yewdall says that applications written in OpenGL or ActiveX work as well.

With Sharp's 3-D technology, images look best when viewed from a specific angle and distance. With the RD3D, the best viewing position is dead center and 21 inches away. But Nixon says he has found three good spots near the middle that allow several people to view the screen at the same time.

When operating in 3-D, the screen's resolution is lower and brightness drops, since each eye gets only half the pixels, but Nixon says the 3-D effect is worth the compromise. "The 3-D is very strong, with depth ranging from right inside the screen to objects rotating and moving above your keyboard," says Nixon. "You want to try and reach out and touch some of them." Matthew says Sharp plans to release a stand-alone 3-D monitor in 2004. Although it will initially sell at a premium, he predicts that prices will eventually come down into the range of 2-D screens as demand rises.

Who Needs It?

The business value of OLEDs and 3-D may be limited to niche applications. Besides modeling, the main use for 3-D displays today is in presentations. While showing a 3-D presentation may impress an important client, the extra cost is hard to justify for other uses.

OLEDs currently cost twice as much to build as similar-size LCDs. Allen says vendors are using OLEDs only on their more expensive products, so it's impossible to tell how much the screen adds to the overall cost. So if a company chooses high-end cell phones for its staff, it may get OLED screens whether it asks for them or not.

"From an enterprise perspective, people don't need to worry about OLEDs," says Martin Reynolds at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "When OLEDs become competitive with LCDs, manufacturers will start putting them in handhelds and desktops." But he doesn't see that happening anytime soon. Reynolds instead advises companies to look at replacing desktop CRTs with tried and true LCD displays.


Principle of 2-D/3-D LCD
A 3-D display works by emitting light at different angles, enabling each eye to see different images. In Sharp’s display, a switching liquid crystal sits behind a standard color LCD and uses a parallax barrier system to selectively block or allow light patterns. When the barrier lets light pass, the same patterns reach the viewer’s left and right eyes (left) and the user sees a 2-D image. But when the barrier selectively blocks light, different images reach each eye, resulting in a 3-D image (right).

Please click on image above to view a readable version.

Source: Sharp Systems of America

Robb is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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