For Tech's Sake: The changing screen means seeing and believing

Gary Arlen

When Kodak recently put the name "NuVue" and duPont adopted "Olight" for their respective versions of Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) technologies, the end of the cathode ray tube (CRT) era edged a step closer.

Not that brand names themselves give validity to the new types of display technology, such as OLED. But the emerging array of formats ? including Nano-Emissive Displays (NED) and "electrowetting" systems that can help present video images on paper-like sheets ? may also augur the end of the computer monitor as we've known it.

Last year, the movie "Minority Report" featured scenes in which the Tom Cruise character, a law enforcement officer, manipulated holographic images through hand gestures and other interfaces. By some accounts, such futuristic visualization and processing systems are already being used in military and intelligence war rooms.

For conventional users in government and commercial offices today, however, the de rigeur thin-screen liquid crystal display (LCD) or maybe a plasma display panel is far more common, either as the desktop/laptop reality or as a hoped-for upgrade. Truth be told, CRTs remain the state of most office and home desktops.

That's about to change. Display makers, and more specifically, the engineering community back along their supply chains, are hustling an array of technologies that will change the way we see.

Literally.

Many of the efforts reflect the alternative ways in which we access and implement the data, images and output of IT. As government workers ? along with commercial firms ? move away from desk/office settings, displays are shifting shape and size, becoming portable and incorporating appropriate site-specific attributes.

In part, this reflects the need for better displays on mobile phones, personal digital assistants and other non-PC devices.

Bigger and also much smaller displays are part of this picture. So are integrated devices such as high-resolution monitors the size of a credit card with built-in high capacity storage. It's the kind of self-contained device that intelligence agencies, for example, could use to access graphics-dense images during field operations. Predictably, the three-letter agencies believed to be supporting development of such devices are not talking about specific plans.

Another reason for the increased attention to display technology is the acuity of everyday commercial screens.

The introduction of digital TV plus the expansion of computer-makers, such as Dell and Gateway, into consumer electronics is ratcheting upwards the high-definition viewing expectations of IT users.

Similarly, as even the most routine office information relies more extensively on graphics and visuals (including desktop and portable video), the need for appropriate high-resolution displays expands.

Camera phones, PDAs and personal media players are becoming integral to the new IT environment. They deliver streaming video, medical images, maps and diagrams, law enforcement and intelligence scenes and countless other applications where a picture is literally worth thousands of words ? and the picture better be clear.

That's why manufacturers are creating new display technologies: big and small. OLED developers, including Kodak and duPont, also expect their systems to change the economics of displays. OLEDs are self-luminous, which means they do not require the backlighting, diffusers or polarizers of conventional displays.

The latest OLED efforts are being focused on mounting the displays on amorphous-silicon backplanes, which would enable flexible displays ? ones that could be physically bent into different shapes and still present stable images.

One integrator of display technology lists nearly a dozen factors that make OLEDs preferable to LCDs, including greater brightness, faster response time for full motion video, lighter weight, more power efficiency and greater environmental durability.

All that plus a 160-degree "viewing cone" ? in other words, little degradation if you're watching from a sharp angle.

Before these displays can reach the desktop or the "eyephones" (as some skull-mounted micro-displays are dubbed), a lot of backroom work must take place.

Hence, it's no coincidence that within the past few months several big-ticket agreements have been established for display design and development.

Sony ? despite its current financial ailments ? agreed recently to share the cost with Samsung of a $2 billion factory in Korea to manufacture "seventh-generation glass," the next wave of "amorphous substrates" that will be used for large-screen monitors by 2005.

For the time being, LCDs are still very much part of the display picture, as evidenced by several other recent actions.

DuPont Display Solutions and NEC LCD Technologies Ltd. last month unveiled their collaborative venture to make display modules for "applications in less than ideal environments." Their initial output will be LCDs for use in direct sunlight, moisture and extreme temperature situations.

Meanwhile, another Samsung subsidiary is working with Semtech Corp. to develop proprietary power management chips for high-speed displays, meaning ones that can show fast-moving images.

At the same time, great attention is being put on longer-range display solutions to fulfill the shifting demands beyond the desktop. For example, in early autumn, Philips Research scientists touted their achievements in "electrowetting," a technology that they say could create paper-like displays that show images at video speeds. The Dutch researchers toyed with images using pixels as small as 500-by-500 microns, with reflectivity greater than 40 percent and contrast ratios of 15 and brighter. That's an eyeful.

The future of IT encompasses far more than words like these you are reading now on this luminous screen. Big or small, stationary or mobile, clear and configurable, the display manifestation of digital output is becoming more critical ? and more varied ? in the ways that IT works.

In this case, the eyes have it.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm. His e-mail address is GaryArlen@columnist.com.

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