On Market Analogies and the Context of Novel Display Technology

Sometimes it seems like the display industry is moving so fast, all you can do is grab something and hang on. Every business decision must be made quickly, and in many cases, valid strategies become obsolete almost as quickly as they can be implemented. In this month's Business of Displays column, David Barnes from DisplaySearch likens monitoring the industry to watching rush-hour traffic, where random driver behavior is curtailed by a system of traffic lights and intersections. The analogy might be more accurate if you assume the traffic lights are randomly timed and the drivers are paying very little attention to them anyway – that is how varied the strategies applied by various display manufacturers are these days. Some are adding endless capacity in the face of falling prices, practically flooding the market with products through competing channels; others are intentionally cutting back supply and limiting availability of product, hoping to maintain current pricing levels and market share. It's not at all clear today which approach will be more rewarded.

The strategy issue is especially striking when examining how emerging technology companies try countless routes to achieving commercial success. Often, these paths have been well tested and yielded mixed results. Have these companies failed to learn from past strategy failures? Or, does the marketplace's constantly changing dynamics suddenly make the tactics that failed before appear attractive again?

This makes it increasingly difficult for an emerging technology company that is developing a novel display material or enhancement to pick the proper route to success. In many cases, such a company needs to create a superior design for the entire system around the innovation – basically solving a whole larger set of problems – and then hope the effort results in commercial success before the problem or opportunity becomes superseded. In other cases, the mere mention of an innovation could spark a firestorm of demand that, if not instantly fulfilled, creates a huge opportunity for others to charge into the marketplace and capitalize on the novel idea. Sometimes, promoting a new idea can be totally the wrong approach.

Ironically, no matter what approach you take, the market can change faster, and the formula for success appears to be as much random chance as it is strategic aptitude. I do not like that scenario, and I cling stubbornly to the notion that good sound technological development combined with shrewd business strategy will win out over random market forces – but I sometimes have trouble making that argument with as much conviction as I used to. Nonetheless, the good news is that great technological innovation abounds, and there is no end to emerging companies willing to test the system and compete for space in the marketplace.

This month, our topic is Novel Display Technology. This is a hard topic to cover in a monthly magazine, not because there isn't enough material, but because there is such a wide variety of potential topics whose status and degree of visibility changes almost by the minute. Not that long ago, electronic ink and OLED were legitimately novel technologies; now they command their own topical areas and get lots of deserved coverage all over the industry. Similarly, stereoscopic and 3D approaches, and there are many, all get frequent ink and coverage at the major SID conferences and so are no longer really novel in my mind. While it is hard to put a good definition around the term, we can certainly recognize it when we see it. LED-backlight technology itself is certainly not novel anymore, though there have been some really novel implementations of it this year, including using LED arrays to extend the dynamic range of LCDs, as has been demonstrated by BrightSide earlier this year at SID. The BrightSide approach reminded me of the demonstration some years ago by Sony of a plasma-addressed LCD that used the UV discharge in a plasma cell to trigger the TFT in the LCD cell. While not subsequently commercially practical, that was a great example of a truly novel idea. Before that came the very novel idea itself of putting a transistor in every display cell, establishing the concept of an active matrix. As an historical aside, the concept itself was first proposed by Peter Brody in the 1969 Government Microcircuits Applications Conference Digest and later more practically applied to LCDs in 1971 by Lechner, Marlow, Nester, and Tults, in the Proceedings of the IEEE 59, 1566 (1971), which listed various possible circuit elements for an LCD active matrix.

Novel innovations seem to emerge every day in our industry. Many begin with a less dramatic problem to solve and end up taking on a life of their own. This is the history of the Texas Instruments DMD (Digital Micro-mirror Device) now used as the imaging device in DLP TVs. According to the inventor, Larry Hornbeck, the effort to create it was originally motivated by the goal of improving the performance of electronic printing and copying systems. Using a DMD as a projected display device was only exploited much later. Similarly, the novel innovations in LED technology covered earlier this year are ultimately aimed at architectural lighting applications, with a brief current stopover in the display world.

And so, with all this context, I hope you enjoy the novel display innovations we have chosen to spotlight this month: electrowetting technology for reflective displays from Liquavista, an offshoot of Philips Research; optical compensation bend (OCB) technology for improved motion-blur performance by Chunghwa Picture Tubes, Inc., and Sanyo Epson's four-primary color-gamut-expansion approach for mobile displays. Each has a unique twist that struck us as novel and will likely garner interest and attention in the near future.