Las Vegas - Microdisplays emerged as a hot technology at the 2004 International CES here last week, powering a new generation of thin, light, large-screen TVs that top consumer companies hope will finally ignite the U.S. market for digital high-definition sets this year. All sides agreed microdisplays will power flat panels that hit the sweet spot of this potentially lucrative sector, but competition is flaring over which of a handful of display technologies will dominate.
LG Electronics, Thomson Electronics and Toshiba are betting on Texas Instruments Inc.'s Digital Light Processing (DLP) microdisplays. DLPs show up this year in a Thomson set just 6.85 inches thick. But all three companies plus Matsushita also rolled out new plasma display TVs, with LG and Matsushita upping the ante by increasing their production plans for plasma panels in 2004. Sharp Corp., for its part, is sticking with CRT-based panels, opening a dedicated LCD-TV production facility this month in Kameyama, Japan, that uses sixth-generation glass substrates.
Intel Corp. threw its considerable weight behind liquid crystal on silicon, announcing that its newly formed consumer electronics group will release a family of LCOS chips later this year. Intel aims to aggressively drive down costs of the large-screen TVs, which currently sell for $3,000 to $10,000. "By 2005, we think you will see 50-inch high-definition LCOS TVs for less than $1,800," said Intel president Paul Otellini, unveiling the chips at CES. "This will change the economics for large-screen TVs."
Meanwhile, Philips Electronics said it will ship four large-screen TVs this year using proprietary LCOS technology, including its own lamps and lenses. A high-end 62-inch model will sell for $4,699.
One wild card is surface-conduction electron-emitter display (SED) technology from Canon Inc. and Toshiba Corp., a variant of the field-emission display technology Canon has been working on since the mid-'80s (see www.eetimes.com/story/OEG20031205S0034). Toshiba became a development partner in 1999. One Toshiba executive said SEDs running in the lab look better than plasma or DLP TVs. But they won't be ready for market until 2005, so they did not get an OK to be shown at CES.
The enabling microdisplays represent perhaps the final strategic ingredient in a decades-long effort to hammer out the technology, formats, copy protection schemes and digital-cable interfaces for HDTV (see www.eetimes.com/issue/mn/OEG20040105S0033). Consumer OEMs are positioning their premium TVs against PCs as centerpieces of tomorrow's digital, networked home.
Ironically, PC makers such as Dell, Gateway and Hewlett-Packard are also gearing up businesses in large-screen TVs-some with PC electronics built in-and could become natural customers for Intel's LCOS technology.
Whatever the technology, microdisplays mark a sweet spot for digital TV. That's because they provide a picture superior to CRT high-definition screens, yet cost less than large-screen plasma and LCD screens, said Scott Ramirez, a vice president of marketing for Toshiba America. Ramirez estimated that microdisplays will rise to 55 percent of the market for all projection screens by 2005, up from about 22 percent today, taking the lion's share of high-end TVs with 45- to 73-inch screens priced between $3,000 and $10,000. "This is a fast shift," he said.
Toshiba is banking on TI's latest chip set for DLP sets with 1,280 x 720-pixel resolution this year, and plans to make the displays in the United States using its own lamps and lenses. "Microdisplays will become a core competency for Toshiba," Ramirez said.
Thomson too is making a big investment in DLP technology. Its new 61-inch Profiles HDTV has slimmed down to 6.85 inches from 19, thanks largely to a new lamp-and-lens subsystem developed by InFocus Corp. (Wilsonville, Ore.). At less than 100 pounds, the set is pitched as a wall-hanging model but costs a hefty $9,999 retail, a small premium over plasma TVs.
"We think the DLP is the way to go," said Greg Bosler, vice president of color TVs in Thomson's Americas group. Plasma and DLP are comparable in picture quality and weight, he said, but DLP uses "substantially less power" and unlike plasma, is not susceptible to screen burn.
Thomson plans to roll out as many as eight DLP models this year and is also planning as many as 17 models using rear-projection LCD, direct-view LCD, plasma and CRT displays, Bosler said. Nor is Thomson ruling out LCOS and other technologies. "We want to be the leader in microdisplays. We are very aggressively looking into high-temperature polysilicon and LCOS displays," said Gary Hubbard, director of product planning for microdisplay and projection TV at Thomson. "We are in discussions with Intel and others on a possible offering."
Whether Intel and Philips can separately orchestrate a resurgence for LCOS was one of the hot topics at CES. Hitachi and Thompson both pulled the plug on high-profile LCOS efforts, reportedly due to yield and quality issues. Indeed, the current field of more than a dozen LCOS hopefuls used to be twice as large, said Chris Chinnock, senior editor of Insight Media, a Norwalk, Conn., market watcher that tracks microdisplays.
"Intel has a shot at it, but they are just one big player in an already crowded field that is just one of several display technologies out there," Chinnock said. "The key will be making the products in volume with good yields and quality."
Intel did not disclose details of its LCOS chips, which won't sample until closer to June. However, marketing manager Guido Voltolina said the chips will be all-digital, have a 0.8-inch-diagonal display area and include two 2-Mpixel frame buffers. He suggested Intel could roll versions for 720- and 1,080-pixel progressive resolutions that would span screen sizes ranging from about 40 to 60 inches.
Displays could use one, two or three chips per TV, depending on screen size, Voltolina said. The chips offer a 1,000:1 contrast ratio, moving to 2,000:1, he added.
LCOS displays now use as many as six types of lens-and-lamp modules that make up the so-called display engine, with no immediate standard in sight. "That's one of the sticking points of LCOS today," said Chinnock of Insight Media.
Intel is working with engine makers including InFocus and Primax Display Co. Ltd. (Taipei, Taiwan) to lower engine prices. The company said it will stick to its 0.8-inch-diagonal chip display area to make it easier for engine makers to roll standard lamp-and-lens subsystems that can be used in multiple TV sets. Intel said two TV makers in China, TCL International and Skyworth Group, have agreed to use the chips.
However, Intel's PC partners are taking a wait-and-see approach. Gateway's chief financial officer, Roderick Sherwood, attended the Intel LCOS launch at CES but said the company is not ready to commit to the products until it sees samples. Gateway currently ships 13- to 30-inch LCDs and plasma TVs up to 50 inches.
Similarly, Dell Computer now ships large-screen LCD and plasma TVs but has no immediate plans for sets based on microdisplays, said Mark Collier, a business development manager for Dell's consumer group.
Intel is said to have worked on its LCOS technology for as long as three years with partners such as Hana Microdisplay Technologies Inc. (Twinsburg, Ohio) and Varitronix Ltd. (Hong Kong). Intel can use its chip-making clout to integrate LCOS chip sets with other semiconductor peripherals it already has that would be useful in a digital TV, said analyst Chinnock, and that is one of the semiconductor giant's biggest advantages.
A TI manager welcomed Intel's entry into microdisplays, a market Texas Instruments has pursued for nearly eight years. "This means more consumers will be using microdisplay TVs. The TV market is big, and people won't settle for just one technology," said Keith Lewis, manager of business development for DLP displays at TI.
TI expects its DLP business to grow by up to 40 percent this year. The company now offers chip sets hitting 1,080-progressive resolution with contrast ratios higher than 3,000:1, he added.
Sharp called the movement of microdisplay-based projection TVs into the mainstream an "enjoyable situation. Competition will bring a wide selection of products to consumers, from popularly priced ones to high-end ones," said Toshishige Hamano, corporate executive director in charge of overseas business. Sharp claims a 50 percent share of the world market for large LCD TVs, the company said.
Using the sixth-generation substrate, Sharp showed two models of 45-inch LCD TVs at CES. They will be introduced this May in Japan and as early as June in the United States. "These will be the world's first volume-produced 45-inch TV sets," said Hamano, implying that larger panels announced by South Korean competitors have not shipped in volume.
Sharp said the sixth-generation substrates used at its Kameyama fab measure 1,500 x 1,800 mm. They can be cut into eight 32-inch panels, for a monthly yield of more than 100,000 panels larger than 30 inches. "In general, if the price of a 30-inch TV becomes less than $2,000 and 40-inch is less than $3,000, it will stimulate consumers' demand," said Hamano.
The company is also "considering building a prototype of a 63-inch LCD panel" at Kameyama, Hamano said. Two 63-inch panels could be cut from a next-generation motherglass substrate, according to Sharp.
Meanwhile, an LG Electronics executive pledged to open in 2004 the world's largest plasma panel factory, capable of making 75,000 displays per month. The company draped one Vegas hotel with 10-story banners advertising its 76-inch plasma and other large-screen display technologies, including DLP.
Similarly, Matsushita executives said they are speeding up the expansion of a plasma plant in Osaka, Japan, as part of the rollout of their Viera family of high-definition TVs. The company plans to make 1 million plasma displays this year and 1.5 million in 2005 at its three plasma plants, said Andy Takani, president of Panasonic Consumer Electronics. Matsushita also announced plans for four DLP-based TVs, and is keeping the door open to other display options.
"LCOS is a very interesting technology and Intel may become a good supplier to us in this area," said Paul Liao, president of Panasonic Technologies and chief technology officer of Matsushita Electric of America.-Additional reporting by Yoshiko Hara.