In the display business, the marriage of diverse engineering disciplines is nothing new. At its heart, display development is a complex synthesis of electronics design, materials science, optics expertise, system design and fab process engineering. And because displays have direct contact with users' eyes, display design also requires intimate knowledge of the customers' needs and what trade-offs are tolerable in various applications.
Few individuals understand those intricacies of display design more than Chris Curtin, senior director of strategic partnering at Candescent Technologies (San Jose, Calif). Curtin has been involved with emissive-display devices for his entire career. During his 26 years at Tektronix, he had a hand in CRT design, CRT manufacturing and management of the display business unit. For the past 11 years, Curtin has been involved in the development of field-emission displays (FEDs), originally with Coloray Display (Fremont, Calif.), and for the past eight years with Candescent Technologies (San Jose, Calif.).
With his background, Curtin has a unique perspective of where display engineering is headed. It's a realm that will still require a mix of specialists and generalists.
|Chris Curtin thinks hard how to meet industry display
requirements with the mix of generalists and specialists at Candescent Technologies. |
Some disciplines require very narrow expertise, according to Curtin. The realm of new display materials, for example, is very specialized because changes there are slow and evolutionary.
Take phosphor, for example, which is the basic material that converts electrons into photons in a CRT or FED. "To enhance phosphors you need a scientist who understands what's going on at the atomic level in the crystal," said Curtin. "This is an area where you always need optimizations such as increasing luminous efficacy or extending phosphor life. Those changes come quite slowly. A phosphor scientist would kill for 10 percent improvement. Contrast that with the electronics side of the design, where you routinely achieve 100 percent improvements over short periods of time."
Curtin sees the greatest need for interdisciplinary engineering talent at the electronics-design level. In active-matrix LCDs, in particular, there's a major trend toward fabricating displays using a polysilicon process. Using polysilicon lets designers put the driver circuitry around the periphery of the display, eliminating the need for a driver IC. "That trend has made electronics now very much a part of the display device design," said Curtin. "At one time display designers only had to learn enough about thin-film transistors to be able to optimize them. Now they have to optimize the high-speed switching part of the driver circuitry."
There's no reason why circuit integration has to stop at the driver-electronics level. Polysilicon display makers are talking about doing more and more integration. "Whoever does that integration will need broader and broader understanding of the system design," said Curtin. "I think that job is going to continue to evolve. Once you start to integrate those drivers, why not add some more intelligence?" Curtin suggests that this could help crack the problem with DVD security. If the DVD decoder circuit were inside the display, it would be very difficult to hack.
In theory, a whole set of computing electronics could eventually migrate into the display, including the graphics controller chips, microprocessors and more. Making those decisions will require trade-offs. Display designers will have to ask, "What's simple enough to put into the display without destroying the yield?"
Emissive-display designers will face those questions first. You can back some of the circuitry on the back of emissive displays because they don't have to be transparent. "The display device designer has to work with the next level up, the system integrator, to determine which electronics make sense to embed," said Curtin, "The job at that level has changed over the years and will continue to do so."
The customer-requirements aspect of display engineering will only get more complicated in the coming years. According to Curtin, there's been a huge rise in new applications enabled by the shrinking form factor of flat-panel displays. There's a huge set of new mobile devices that weren't possible with traditional CRTs. "The variety of applications is huge," he said. "We're probably at the tip of the iceberg with that: small displays in automobiles, large displays hanging on walls in the home, the list goes on."
To feed this diverse span of display needs, Candescent Technologies is developing a new class of flat-panel display called ThinCRT. ThinCRTs are based on a set of proprietary
techniques that combine conventional CRT technology with advances in semiconductor, disk-drive and flat-panel manufacturing processes and equipment.
Thanks to generous funding, Candescent has a very large team of technologists for a company of its size. As needs rise for engineers with interdisciplinary skills, how does Candescent keep pace? In two ways, said Curtin. On the one hand Candescent's large team of 350 engineers and scientists learns new skills on the job.
On the other hand Candescent has been able to continually refresh its talent base via new hires, many from right out of school. "Universities are like a refreshing pump," said Curtin. "New people bring with them new skill sets, while the older people without that new expertise get it on the job."