Can you believe it? Japanese camcorder and digital-camera makers may be sourcing their viewfinders' flat-panel displays from U.S. suppliers.
Panelists at the recent Society of Information Displays conference in San Jose declared that the first U.S.-made microdisplays will be showing up next year in Japanese consumer products. What a switcheroo from a decade ago, when Japan Inc. claimed U.S. suppliers had no parts that could be used in their consumer electronics.
The about-face comes because the conventional LCD viewfinders Japan makes don't cut the mustard in the new, extremely high-resolution motion-video digital imaging that state-of-the-art camcorders and cameras demand. But microdisplays, which meet Japan's needs, have been championed solely by a host of U.S. start-ups; the tiny displays aren't produced by Japanese companies, which have thrown all their resources into building a massive traditional-LCD industry.
Speaking at the SID conference, Glen Kephart, vice president of marketing for Taunton, Mass.-based Kopin Corp., said microdisplays-which are made on conventional semiconductor lines-can pack so many pixels on a sub-inch panel that a viewfinder resolution can be as high as the human eye's capabilities allow. A digital-camera user thus can enjoy an exact, "real world" view of the picture being taken.
In camcorders, the microdisplay advantage is even greater: Typical LCD viewfinders can't match the video speed of the full-motion action being recorded. The video rates of most microdisplays give them a considerable edge, said Alan Marty, general manager of microdisplays for Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif.
Microdisplays also consume less power than their LCD rivals-a big plus in portable consumer products-and they're far more rugged. The No. 1 repair problem for camcorders and digital cameras is broken viewfinders, according to Kopin's Kephart, since a portable device can easily slip out of a user's grasp.
Hopefully this new microdisplay prospect is more realistic than earlier predictions for the tiny devices' use in 3D headsets and cell-phone image attachments, which have yet to take off in the market. And rear-projection microdisplay screens for high-definition televisions and desktop monitors are still a year or more away.
The promise of this ironic marriage of Made-In-America microdisplays with Japanese consumer electronics is one of the few sources of hope in a U.S. industry fraught with disappointment. Stateside companies that make larger-size AM-LCDs have been pummeled, and domestic FED upstarts continue to scramble.
Perhaps one of the strongest votes of confidence in a Yankee microdisplay industry comes from Intel Corp. The microprocessor giant has added microdisplays to the list of PC-related technologies the company is researching and in which it may invest.
The biggest challenge facing these Lilliputian new devices, according to HP's Marty, is not technology but standards. Typical of any up-and-coming market, today's gaggle of microdisplays varies all over the lot, with hardly any common interfaces or specifications. "We've got to get together on standard interfaces to allow this market to take off," Marty warned.
If this country stays on course, it could cash in on a potential $500 million market in 2001. Banzai!