R.I.P. SED — Canon Kills Flat Screen Technology

It was 2008 when I last wrote about Canon’s SED technology, after they won a lawsuit over a technology license agreement and their decision to abandon efforts to make a consumer product and focus instead on a high-end monitor for commercial video production facilities.

According to a report in Network World this week, Canon has finally thrown in the towel and pulled the plug on the project. After 15 years of work, the company apparently has conceded that they to market. And so dies one more branch of the technology tree that hopes to bring us thin, energy-efficient, emissive, high-resolution flat panel color displays.

SED stands for “surface-condition electron-emitter display” (though some shortened that to just “surface emitter display”). It is a close relative of the field-emitter display (FED) technology. Canon came up with a way to create a microscopic gap between two conductors, then bridge it with a material that would emit light when the gap produced electrons. I remember seeing the first public prototype demonstration in Boston at a Society for Information Display conference around 1997, and it created an instant buzz. The fun fact about it was that Canon engineers used a standard BubbleJet printhead on an X-Y positioning system in order to deposit the tiny amounts of material required at each junction.

A few years ago, Canon started showing pre-production prototypes in television sizes at CES and other events. The image quality was stunning, and since it was an emissive technology like plasma, there were no viewing angle issues. And the panel didn’t produce any light when the power to a pixel was turned off, so the blacks were incredibly rich and deep.

Sadly, Canon could not produce a competitively priced product, even at the professional level. They might have had a chance back when an HDTV cost $5,000 to $10,000, but there’s just no market for something in that price range when the competition is around one-tenth that price. The rapid and steady fall of plasma and LCD prices — about 20% a year for the past few years — has made it all but impossible for new technologies to ramp up to the production scale required to compete on price.

OLED is still hanging on, thanks to its success in the mobile display market including cell phones and MP3 players, but I still think we’re years away from a 32″ OLED HDTV, and years beyond that before they become competitive with LCD pricing. FED is also still hanging around, as researchers explore how carbon nanotubes (CNT) may form an emitter layer that is inexpensive and reliable. But don’t hold your breath.

It’s not enough to have a better technology at this point. It also has to be cost-competitive and ramp up almost overnight to production at the level of millions of units per year, all while maintaining sufficient yield results that you can still scrape off a little profit from the money that flows through the operation. Expect your flat panel choices to be limited to LCD and plasma for the time being.