HDTV Alternative Technologies

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, LCD is the worst display technology except all the others that have been tried. The panels take many complex and precise steps to manufacturer using discrete sheets of glass substrates (instead of a more efficient roll of some material), and the finished product blocks about 95% of the light from the backlight even when it is showing a full white screen. And yet, the technology remains the most cost-effective and functional for everything from giant HDTVs to tiny cell phones.

The fact that LCD dominates the display world does not mean that it will reign forever. Picture tubes (CRTs) ruled the television market for about 75 years, but they eventually were replaced. I expect that it will be no different for LCDs, though I believe that the accelerated pace of technology advances will likely limit LCD’s dominance to somewhat less than 75 years.

Case in point: Field Emission Technologies (FET) is a spin off from Sony that is pursuing the commercial production of Field Emission Displays, or FEDs. This technology was the darling of the display industry with giants such as Motorola sinking enormous sums into research. The technology works by putting thousands of microscopic electron emitters behind each sub-pixel. The result is an image that looks like a CRT, but is as thin — or thinner — than an LCD. Unfortunately, the early research efforts stumbled on making the transition from the laboratory to the production line.

The situation has changed. FET has made arrangements to purchase one of Pioneer’s plasma production plants (which is idle now that Pioneer has stopped making its own plasma panels). And they are planning to produce 26-inch FED panels by the end of 2009. The target is 10,000 units per month which is not a huge quantity, but it’s enough to demonstrate whether or not mass production is feasible.

The one hitch in the plans is that FET is targeting the initial product as a “master monitor” for video production. In other words, this will be a professional quality product with a high price tag. We can only hope that they can sell enough into this market to get them through the initial production phase, and that their roadmap includes ways to cut the production costs (and increase the panel size) so that they can get down to a selling price that can challenge LCD.

The LCD sky is not falling; it will take years before any technology will be able to reach the economies of scale that make LCDs so affordable now. But it’s good to see that manufacturers are still trying to bring alternatives to market.