A longstanding technology program aimed at national defense research in the area of flat panel displays has fallen to the Congressional budget ax-even as the U.S. Department of Defense intensifies its search for IT systems to combat terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
First launched in 1994, the National Flat Panel Display Initiative began as an effort to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign suppliers by fostering a domestic FPD industry. The initiative was funded principally through a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant and received $38 million in federal money in the just-ended fiscal year.
Having largely failed in its mission, however, the program has been scratched from the fiscal 2002 defense budget now before Congress. Future federal spending for display research will now likely come in the form of smaller projects scattered throughout various military service budgets, according to observers.
"Clearly, the application of display technology could be important in the anti-terrorism effort," said Michael Ciesinski, president of the U.S. Display Consortium (USDC), San Jose, which was partially dependent on the display initiative for its operating funds. Ciesinski added that it would be up to the government to restore any FPD development money.
Setting new goals
With the race to break into the Asia-dominated commodity FPD market long since lost, many domestic companies say the time has come to focus on more attainable goals. Specifically, the score or more U.S.-based suppliers of miniature displays are eagerly moving their technology into higher-volume applications that address military and security needs.
Microdisplays have quietly grown into a $1.2 billion market, and nearly 60 million units are expected to ship in 2005 with a value of $5 billion, according to Microdisplay Report.
John C.C. Fan, president and chief executive of Kopin Corp., a Taunton, Mass., display maker, said the elimination of DARPA funding for advanced displays is a concern given the sudden change of military priorities in the fight against terrorism. However, Fan said the Pentagon could meet high-tech display needs by buying microdisplays from existing manufacturers.
"Companies like Kopin have invested for years to bring advanced displays to the market," he said. "New companies that haven't crossed this river yet may be upset if DARPA funding is lost. But we're in good shape to supply what the military may need."
Charles McLaughlin, an analyst at the McLaughlin Consulting Group, Menlo Park, Calif., was even more forthright. "The military has spent years trying to develop systems for the 'digital soldier,' " he said. "The [armed] services would be much better off if they simply outfitted each soldier with a fisherman's jacket with lots of pockets to stuff in a Palm Pilot, a cell phone, and a GPS receiver. DOD could also use the commercial headset microdisplays readily available on the market."
Those panels-in some cases measuring less than an inch across-could serve applications ranging from helmet-mounted information displays for combat troops to wearable computers used by U.S. customs agents and border patrols. Kopin, for one, is supplying a limited number of active-matrix LCD microdisplays to defense companies making head-mounted displays, weapon sights, and handheld devices.
Chris Chinnock, an analyst at Microdisplay Report, said an influx of military orders would be a welcome boost for an industry composed of small companies struggling in a tight market. Even so, "the trickle-down from any increase in military funding will take a while," Chinnock said. We may see a burst [of military orders] for microdisplays in wearable computers or handsets," he added.
Xybernaut Inc., a wearable-computer pioneer based in Fairfax, Va., sees a potential market for providing security at airports and military installations. British Airways is already testing Xybernaut systems, which use microdisplays for viewing at security checkpoints. Ticket agents equipped with headsets and wearable computers connected to reservation systems could also process passengers faster, the company said.
John Moynahan, senior vice president of Xybernaut, said interest in wearable headsets is growing for use in disaster recovery and search and rescue operations. Moynahan said the sudden attention being paid to facial-recognition ID systems also could result in wearable computers and headsets connected to master data files. He said unnamed government agencies have been field testing the company's headsets and computers.
Another microdisplay vendor poised to increase military business is eMagin Corp., Hopewell Junction, N.Y., which already is selling its organic LED panels into various programs. The company's OLED panel was selected two weeks ago to be integrated into helmet-mounted night vision goggles for the Air Force F-15E fighter.
Kaiser Electro-Optics Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif., division of Rockwell Collins, a military avionics cockpit display contractor, is turning to microdisplays for several new programs. These include a helmet-mounted display for ground troops as part of the Army's Land Warrior program, which has been seven years in development. A helmet-mounted display also is being developed for a helicopter training system built by L3 Communications, Arlington, Texas. OR