CAMAS, Wash. Researchers at Sharp Laboratories of America want to transform the television into an all-purpose appliance that would handle applications ranging from on-demand video to e-mail services.
As the beachhead for U.S. imports from the $20 billion Sharp Corp. (Osaka, Japan), Sharp Labs is also targeting new designs for cell phones, video recorders and document imaging systems.
"We are charged primarily with researching technologies that Sharp Corporation can develop into products for the U.S. market," said Jon Clemens, founder and director of Sharp Labs. "For instance, Sharp had the first camera-enabled mobile phone, and by 2005 we will be producing only LCTVs [liquid crystal display televisions], no more CRTs."
Sharp ditched CRTs manufacturing in 2002 after estimating that LCD-based televisions could account for as much as 45 percent of the worldwide market by 2004. To cash in, Sharp Labs began developing technologies to differentiate its LCTVs in the U.S. market.
"We are working very hard with international standards organizations, like the ISO [International Standards Office] on MPEG-7 [Moving Picture Experts Group] and TV-Anytime Forum on standards for describing content so it can be automatically identified, and with HomePlug and WiMedia on home networking," said Clemens.
Sharp envisions TVs tracking and recording viewers news and entertainment preferences. Content would be filtered, found, accessed, retrieved and stored automatically.
"We are also working on software that summarizes programs for you," Clemens said. "Our sports summaries will enable viewers to watch a complete game and see every play in about 45 minutes."
Sharp Labs currently has 275 employees, a few less than the 286 patents it has secured since its founding. Clemens was named director in 1995 when Sharp Labs began with only seven employees.
Sharp Labs occupies a campus in rural Washington State where six research and development departments report to Clemens (a former manager at Stanford Research Institute and, before that, RCA). Research departments include digital video, multimedia communications, digital imaging systems, information systems technologies, IC process technology and LCD process technology. Clemens also oversees small satellite labs in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Vienna, Va., as well as a group of computer programmers in Bangalore, India.
Sharp Labs' Information Systems Technology unit focuses on the human visual system and applies that research to improve users' experience. In particular, it uses "spatial compression" to reduce the number of bits needed to accurately represent on-screen images.
"You can already see the advantages of our bit-depth extension technology in our newest LCTVs, which require lower-bit depth drivers to maintain the same level of viewable quality in our displays," said Scott Daly, leader of Sharp Labs' Center for Display Appearance.
Daly's research team found a new dithering method that, instead of depending on clusters of dots that tend to degrade spatial resolution, dithers the amplitude of adjacent pixels. (Dithering is a method of fooling the human eye into "seeing" information that is not really there.)
Sharp Labs invention of bit-depth extention lowered manufacturing cost on the company's new line of LCTVs, Daly said, reducing the number bit depth drivers that must be integrated into displays. For PC monitors, BDE promises enhanced resolution at the same price as competitors.
Across the hall in the Digital Audio Visual Systems department the focus is on improving consumer electronics with unique features including advanced compression and other data massaging techniques specifically designed for handheld devices like cell phones. Here also is the center of software research into making the TV, rather than the PC, the hub for 21st century computing, on-demand viewing, and listening to music.
The Digital Audio Visual Systems department is fostering agreements with content providers as it develops an integrated computing/entertainment operating system running on a TV. The new line of LCTVs already has an integrated H.264 codec for the newest video encoding layer of MPEG-4. The group is also working closely with Sharp's Multimedia Communications department on wirelessly routing content on home networks.
The IC Process Technology department recently invented a process for making integrated resistors into RAM. Its closely help R-RAM project is scheduled for release in 2004. R-RAMs reportedly store pixel values in high-speed nonvolatile memories integrated directly onto the LCD panel along with its drivers.
The IC department also helps develop emerging materials SiGe process technology for CMOS imagers that is more efficient of power usage for mobile users. It is also working on a 70-nm process for low power devices.
The LCD Process Technology department helped pioneer aluminum metalization on amorphous silicon for its current crop of proprietary thin-film-transistor LCDs. It is moving beyond amorphous silicon to low-temperature polysilicon technology for future LCDs, and on continuous-grain silicon for mobile LCDs.
The LCD department is also developing proprietary technologies to increase viewing angles (currently 170 degrees), response rate and dynamic range (wider range of colors). All circuitry will eventually be integrated onto LCDs, creating a system-on-panel, but without the environmental impact of organic light-emitting diodes.
Sharp researchers in Japan are investigating OLEDs for use later in the decade.