Information Display checks out the show floor at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
by Alfred Poor
THE Society for Information Display's annual "Display Week" conference is the must-see event for the display industry. With its international attendance, non-stop multi-track programming, and packed exhibit hall, it's a one-stop opportunity for designers and engineers to see the latest in display technology. If you want to see what those designers and engineers create with these amazing components, you need to attend the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held each January in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the retailers get to see the finished products and place their orders for the coming year.
It is important to keep in mind that Display Week and CES are quite different in one key respect: Display Week is a technology show and CES is an applications show. Display Week exhibitors generally present products and processes intended to be incorporated into end products for business and consumers. CES is all about those end products, from automotive electronics to mobile phones, from portable computers to enormous televisions. And just about everywhere you may wander among the 2 million square feet of exhibit space, you will see displays in all these products -- thousands of them. This article provides an overview of some of the display stories that developed at this year's CES 2011.
3-D TV Is Still Hot
The big display story has to be stereoscopic 3-D television. All major manufacturers – and some lesser brands – offer some 3-D TV models. The vast majority rely on the use of shutter glasses, which are synchronized to the display. These active glasses have the advantage of delivering the full-screen resolution to both eyes, and this approach can be implemented on just about any high-definition display that can handle a refresh rate of 120 Hz or greater. The downside is that the glasses are expensive and, to date, they have been relatively heavy and unattractive compared with the slimmer passive glasses that consumers wear when they see a 3-D movie at their local cinema.
Most of the 3-D-ready displays were based on LCD flat panels, though many manufacturers – notably Panasonic – also have plasma flat-panel models. Mitsubishi also continues to make 3-D-ready rear-projection displays that offer very large screens at aggressively low prices.
Panasonic had a giant array of 3-D plasma-panel displays on exhibit, where the monster 152-in. plasma panel in the center dwarfed the other big screens that surrounded it. Images courtesy Alfred Poor.
The big news that broke days before CES 2011 was that Vizio is shipping a 65-in. 3-D TV that relies on passive glasses. Vizio's set uses a patterned retarder added to the LCD panel so that the polarization changes with alternate horizontal lines of pixels. The advantage is that the glasses are simpler to make and cost less; Vizio will be including four pairs with each set. On the down side, this approach cuts the resolution seen by each eye in half. By itself, the passive glasses design is not a big deal. However, the passive-glasses approach requires an additional layer of material in the display panel, and this should presumably add to the materials and processing costs for the set. Despite this, Vizio has announced that the set is priced at $3499, which is as much as $1000 less than an equivalent set from a competing major brand that relies on active glasses.
It was not surprising that LG also exhibited a passive-glasses set, as LG is the source of the panel used by Vizio for its model. If the passive-glasses approach can be sold for a price equal to or less than the active-glasses models, then I expect that consumers will flock to the new approach and it will rapidly gain market share.
The third approach to 3-D TV is an autostereoscopic display, and there were plenty examples of these to be found around CES. A number of companies are exploring autostereoscopic displays for small handheld devices, including mobile phones and portable video-game players. Perhaps one of the most intriguing involved a technology demonstration by Toshiba, which showed a laptop computer with a steerable autostereoscopic LCD panel, with the head-tracking for a single user controlled by face-recognition software. The result was very effective.
Less effective, however, were the large auto-stereoscopic panels demonstrated by Sony, LG, and Toshiba. Not only did these noticeably reduce the effective resolution of the displays, but you are limited to fixed "sweet spots" in front of the screens where you could see a coherent stereoscopic image. The multiple views come at the price of lower image resolution. (Sony did have a demonstration using a 56-in. 4k-resolution panel that had noticeably better detail in the image.) None of the companies demonstrating these multi-viewer sets announced any plans to commercialize the products, and it is not clear that there will be a commercially viable solution for living-room applications any time soon.
OLEDs Remain a Novelty
As in recent years, there were prototypes of larger OLED displays in evidence at several booths, and many were showing 3-D content (using active glasses). LG showed 15- and 31-in. models, and Hisense had a 15-in. 2-D model in its booth. The difference between this year and prior years is that nobody was talking about ship dates or retail prices. LG is on the record saying that it has plans to introduce a 31-in. OLED 3-D TV in the near future, but that's about as specific as anyone would get.
Based on what was shown at CES this year, OLED technology continues to make sense for high-end portable devices that require high-quality screens. It does not look as though a competitively priced OLED television is going to hit the shelves any time soon, however.
Projecting a Brighter Image
CES has not been known as much of a show for projectors in the past, but that is changing rapidly. Home-theater projectors continue to come down in price, making a front projector practical as an alternative to a large flat-panel HDTV. For example, BenQ showed a 1080p projector that sells for under $1200. As with the flat panels, however, 3-D is an important part of the story for front projection, with Sony offering a new model for under $10,000 and Mitsubishi showing a new 1080p SXRD LCoS model that uses active glasses and sells for under $7000.
There were many more projectors in evidence at CES 2011 than these home projectors (and the familiar business and education projectors). The pico-projectors have landed in force, and in addition to all the stand-alone devices that we have seen from companies such as 3M, Microvision, and LG, there were more products than ever that had these tiny projectors embedded in them. For example, the Cinemin Slice from Wowee is an iPad dock that has speakers and a DLP pico-projector built-in. It is only rated at 11 lm, so you will have to dim the lights, but it makes it easy to share photos and videos without having to crowd around the tablet's small panel.
Sony showed two new video cameras that have embedded pico-projectors. Imager-manufacturer Syndiant showed a number of applications for pico-projectors, including a prototype of a portable wireless media player with an embedded projector. Some companies are exploring the design of a pico-projector with a television tuner to be used as a low-cost battery-powered television set for developing markets in China and India.
Displays to Go
Everywhere you looked at CES 2011 there were displays on exhibit. There were big ones and tiny ones, but perhaps most visible of all were the smaller ones. In addition to the usual flood of new mobile phones (with multi-touch displays), two new categories stepped fully into the spotlight this year: e-book readers and tablets.
The e-book readers have been coming for a while, but now it is clear that this is a viable market segment. Companies showed low-power bistable solutions, such as the popular Amazon Kindles. New low-power color models were also shown, including a prototype mirasol® display from Qualcomm. There were also readers with more conventional LCD panels, such as the NOOKcolor from Barnes & Noble, which uses an IPS panel from LG.
While there were plenty of e-book readers at the show, the hot new category was tablet PCs. The runaway success of the Apple iPad has drawn a lot of attention and, in turn, competition from other manufacturers. The Samsung Galaxy Tab has become an overnight success, with more than 1.5 million units sold since its announcement last fall. But the market is going to get more crowded; by some estimates there were as many as 100 new tablet products introduced at CES 2011. IDC has reported that tablet PC sales will reach 44 million units worldwide this year and will keep growing to 71 million units in 2012.
Toshiba demonstrated a notebook computer with an autostereoscopic display that relied on head tracking to steer the images to the viewer. The window on the right shows the facial recognition software used by the head-tracking system.
More Displays in More Places
If there's a single broad take-away point from CES 2011 (aside from the fact that it is an unimaginably large event), it is that consumer electronics are more about displays than ever before. We are going to have more devices with more displays, and these devices will be in contact with each other through local networks – wired and wireless – and the Internet so that they can share useful information beyond just photos, music, and video. It is clear that there will be demand for all manner of displays, both in terms of size and quality. And along with these displays go all the supporting materials, including solid-state light sources, substrate materials, electronics, and everything else that is required to make a functional display.
As a result, when I go to Display Week in Los Angeles this May, I will stroll through the exhibit halls with a new perspective. Not only will I be looking for new and clever display technologies and supporting components, but I will also be looking to see how they might fit into the shifting landscape of the consumer-electronics market and its apparently endless appetite for more displays. •