The Pace of Innovation

Sign of the Times

by Stephen Atwood

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We have probably all seen them, even if we did not realize what we were looking at – the newest generation of electronic signs and interactive displays that are popping up everywhere in new form factors and innovative designs.  This latest generation is enabled by the impressive work from digital-sign display manufacturers.  New and really unique capabilities are finally becoming affordable thanks in part to recent commercial developments in LEDs and LCDs, along with the imaginations of marketers and retailers.  An example appears on our cover this month from my region of the world.  This is in the Hall of Fame at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where the New England Patriots play football.  These futuristic looking kiosks, set against a backdrop of direct-view high-resolution LED displays from NanoLumens showing full-motion video, create a very exciting visitor space.  These displays are made from high-density R-G-B LED building blocks the company calls “nixels” that can be assembled in a wide variety of shapes and form factors.  These displays are part of the overall recent renovation of the venue and typical of what designers are looking to do in public spaces these days.

When I think about this marketplace, my first thoughts are not the numbers (although we will see later that they are trending well) but the ways in which digital signage can change how we interact with the world around us.  We all respond better to things that are pleasing and entertaining.  Whether we are in sports venues, shopping malls, restaurants, or other public areas, our experiences are greatly enhanced by good design and pleasing sights and sounds.  Previous generations of electronic displays in these places might have been described as clunky or even in some cases, garish.  They usually did not fit well into the environment and frequently presented disappointing image quality.  Remember the days of CRT TVs or early generation flat panels hanging from the ceilings in retail stores?  Yes, me too, and they were not very attractive.

Well, those days are gone, and we are witnessing the next generation just coming to life.  As you will see in some of the illustrations and descriptions in this issue, digital-signage displays are becoming part of the architecture and ambiance of the environment, frequently making a positive and even artistic contribution to the overall visitor experience.  New form factors in packaging combined with amazing improvements in resolution, color gamut, and luminance are opening up new ways to design interactive spaces such as the one at Gillette Stadium.  These innovations now include advanced content, as these displays stand ready to show high-definition streams at amazingly high luminance levels to stand out in even the brightest indoor and outdoor environments.  These new screens are much more advanced than your local sports bar’s big-screen TVs.  They can be mega-sized screens in large public areas that look really good even from just a few feet away.  They can also be draped attractively around the sides of buildings to form unique visual effects that enhance the entire landscape as easily as they can facilitate a more rewarding shopping experience at a countertop or entry-way location.  And, of course, they need to do this 24 hours a day, 7 days per week for years upon years, with high asset up times to achieve the investment and return on investment targets set by the owner-operators.

To cover all this, we are extremely grateful to have as our guest editor this month Gary Feather (Chief Technology Officer at NanoLumens and a highly experienced industry veteran).  Gary developed his own Frontline Technology article titled, “Elemental Evolution of Digital-Signage Components,” to give us a clear picture (pun intended) of the trends and recent technical innovations making this recent wave of digital signs possible, along with some of the most interesting new embodiments in this space.

We also have a Display Marketplace feature from Todd Fender with IHS Technology Group, titled “New Directions for Digital Signage and Public Displays,” to help fill in the story from the business side.  As I said earlier, the numbers are worth talking about, as the total global sales forecast for public displays is forecasted to grow from 3 million units in 2015 to near 4.5 million units in 2019.  Now, if this does not sound like very much volume, just consider that this translates to a market size near US$10 billion, made up mainly by large-sized LCD panels and even larger-sized direct-view LED displays.  This market is big enough that major LCD manufacturers are taking notice and developing special industrial-grade high-performance panels just to support this application.  Many parts of the supporting eco-system are growing rapidly as well to deliver content and to provide new materials and methods for packaging, installation, maintenance services, etc.  It is clear why the SID Symposium program committee identified digital signage as a special topical area for Display Week 2016.  This is a business and technology market poised for a lot of growth in the coming years.

Our other important technical focus area this month is Display Materials, and specifically we are talking about ways to make active-matrix backplanes either from oxide TFTs or possibly from a new type of switching device called an amorphous-metal non-linear resistor (AMNR), which is described as “… a two-terminal device that employs amorphous-metal thin films to create highly uniform tunnel junctions for regulating current–voltage performance.”  Guest Editor and SID Fellow John Wager (Professor at the School of EECS at Oregon State University) joins us again this month first to update us on the latest advances in oxide-TFT research with his Frontline Technology article, “Oxide TFTs: A Progress Report.”  This is a great update to a technology gaining wide-ranging acceptance that we have been covering with John’s help for several years now.

But next, we hear from authors Sean Muir, Jim Meyer, and John Brewer, all with a new entrant company called Amorphyx, describing their development of AMNR devices in their Frontline Technology article, “Amorphous-Metal Thin Films Enable Ultra-High-Definition Display Backplanes.”  A common theme in both articles is the emphasis on making switching devices from amorphous rather than polycrystalline thin films for several critical reasons, including stability, uniformity, and ultimately scalability to very-large panel sizes including those needed to make some of the incredibly large (> 80-in.) LCD panels being sold now for TVs and digital signs.  John Wager explains all the details about this as well in his Guest Editorial, “Amorphous? Again??” I hope you will find it as helpful as I did in putting all this new activity around oxide-film research into the proper context.

Our Business of Displays coverage continues this month with an update on the Chinese economy and its impact on display manufacturing in China.  Not long ago we heard impressive stats about plans for new display-manufacturing capacity.  We have also heard a lot this past year about the Chinese stock market and the slowing of the company’s overall domestic economy, and we wanted to know what impact that was having on those aggressive plans.  Our own Jenny Donelan did a great job assembling this feature, titled “China Continues to Expand Display Operations,” and she explains that despite the recent news, things remain very positive for new investment and capacity expansion.  We’ll be keeping an eye on this throughout 2016 and bringing you updates as we dig deeper into some of the plot lines she uncovered while developing this article.

For as long as I can remember, people have looked for ways to make multiple-color displays appear the same and optimize the available color gamut of each one for the best user experience.  It used to be relatively hard just to get two displays next to each other to look the same.  Various calibration techniques were developed to address this issue, and today you can assemble entire walls of flat-panel displays and, with the right software, make them all track the same in terms of luminance and chrominance.  You can also manipulate the source content to make them look more vivid and utilize as much available display color gamut as possible.  This latter desire becomes more interesting as we see LED and quantum-dot (QD) backlights become widely available.  However, now consider trying to do the same kind of thing between a tablet display and a laptop, or develop content that looks as vivid on a smartphone as it does on your home TV screen.  Well, authors Stefan Peana from Dell and Jim Sullivan from eeColor take on this challenge by describing a new platform for display color optimization they call “True Color.”   In this issue’s installment of Making Displays Work for You, titled “True Color: The Road to Better Front-of-Screen Performance,” we hear about a sophisticated set of hardware and software tools built on the Intel graphics processor platform to transform the color space of content sources to optimize their appearance on a variety of known target displays.  I will not try to explain it all to you in this short introduction – that is what their article does – but what I will say is that this kind of capability has far-reaching possibilities, if used properly, to enhance the user experience as advertised.  I applaud the people who worked on this project for giving due consideration to the importance of realism and including the impact of the viewer’s ambient environment in the methodology to optimize color performance.

Of course, before we end, let me offer a truly heartfelt wish for your good health, success, and prosperity in this New Year.  We all have our individual hopes for 2016 and beyond.  Mine include spending more time with my family and making important memories at home as well as at work.  I hope you too have similar ambitions and as I have said many times, a better work-life balance actually makes you more productive and more prosperous than endless working hours ever will.  May we all find our own form of peace in the New Year.  •