The 11 Best Display-Related Finds at CES 2017
The most exciting near- and medium-term developments seen at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas revolved around quantum dots. And there were
by Ken Werner
There were lots of displays at the latest Consumer Electronics Show, held January 4–8, 2017, in Las Vegas, but only in a few cases were developments in display technology front and center. More frequently, displays were important as enabling components in larger systems, notably automotive human-machine interfaces (HMIs), advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), and autonomous vehicles. But leaving the self-balancing motorcycles, etc. aside, we will focus on the 11 display technologies and display-centric products (including one exhibit) that were the best in their own right, and we’ll define “best” as we go along.
1. Best Product That Isn’t What It Says It Is
Samsung introduced its new “QLED” TV technology, although it wasn’t based on what the technical community would call quantum dot light-emitting diode (QLED). We’d better get used to it, though. When Samsung’s marketing army decides to call an apple an orange, it’s going to be an orange. (That’s what happened when, a few years back, Samsung decided to call an LCD-TV with an LED edge-light an “LED TV.” And so it remains to this day.)
Today, Samsung is making very good 4K quantum-dot TVs under the label S-UHD. But Samsung representatives have said the label hasn’t been very exciting or informative for consumers, and that brings us to QLED.
In 2016, Samsung acquired the assets of quantum-dot company QD Vision. QD Vision had developed significant intellectual property around QLED technology – true QLED technology – and Samsung also acquired rights to the “QLED” name.
True QLED refers to a structure that resembles an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) structure, but with the organic emitting layer of OLED replaced with quantum dots (QDs). While QDs in current TVs are excited by photons, the QDs in QLED are excited by an electric field. This very different approach will take years of additional development before it appears in commercial TV sets, but many industry-watchers regard it as possibly the best TV display technology under development today.
This is not the technology in Samsung’s “QLED” TV sets. These sets have the conventional quantum-dot structure, but the dots – made by Nanosys – are constructed differently from other QDs, including the QDs in Samsung’s 2016 S-UHD TV sets. The sets showed in Samsung’s booth at CES looked very good, but we will need to compare test results to see if they are better than competing sets.
In Samsung’s CES press conference, Joe Stinziano, executive vice president for Samsung Electronics America, said the QLED sets cover “nearly all of the DCI color space,” incorporate high dynamic range (HDR), and generate a peak white luminance of 1,500 to 2,000 nits. The panel, he said, is optimized for the new QDs, which presumably means the matrix color filter is tuned for the wavelengths and widths of the QD peaks. The QLED set adapts to room illumination, said Stinziano; the panel connects to the box via optical cable, and the set mounts on the wall, for those who opt for wall-mounting, with virtually no gap. Samsung showed 65-in. and 88-in. examples on the show floor. The QLED line, which was introduced at the start of this year’s show, won a Consumer Technology Association (CTA) Innovation Award.
Samsung’s announced strategy is to skip OLED technology completely and jump directly to true QLED. But, when it does, what will Samsung call it? Samsung is already trying to resolve the issue by calling the current photoluminescent QD technology “photoluminescent QLED,” and using “electroluminescent QLED” for the QLED technology to come.
2. Best Real QLED and Air-Stable Quantum-Dot Technology Demonstrations
Samsung’s QD supplier Nanosys demonstrated a true QLED in its suite in the Westgate Hotel. The demo consisted of four bright blue pixels (Fig. 1), indicating that 1) Nanosys can make them, and 2) we’re a long way from a true QLED TV set, confirming a widely held belief in the field.
Fig. 1: Above are four true QLED subpixels as demonstrated by Nanosys. The subpixels are blue, but so bright they appear white even with the camera’s
exposure compensation set to maximum underexposure. Photo courtesy Ken Werner.
Nanosys gave a primitive, lab-bench style demo of air-stable quantum dots behind closed doors last May at SID’s Display Week. The company’s air-stable demo in its CES suite this year was far more sophisticated than what it showed last May. (Nanosys now calls the technology “ambient processable,” which is accurate but hard to wrap your tongue around.) The demo showed what is widely called a “filter” because the intent is for it to replace the matrix color filter in an LCD, even though it isn’t a filter in the conventional sense.
Jeff Yurek, Nanosys director of marketing and investor relations, said the materials issues for the air-stable QDs have been solved. Photolithography produces a clean pattern, which was verified by looking at the sample, although the pixel density was limited by the lab-level lithography equipment used, said Yurek. The materials are compatible with lithography for 4K panels and beyond, he said. The QD filter pattern will probably be applied to the back side of the LCD’s front glass, although it could be applied to the front side. That will be up to the panel-maker, Yurek said. He concluded our conversation by saying the air-stable QDs “could be commercial in 2018; 2019 for sure.”
After leaving the Nanosys suite I had a private meeting with Matt Bootman, CEO of QD developer Crystalplex, and business development director Ken Acer. Bootman and Acer showed me samples of their company’s sapphire-passivated air-stable QDs deposited on polymer film. Each of the three samples produced a different color when a laser was aimed at it. Not as flashy as a multi-colored pattern, but sufficient to show the dots work in air and can be coated onto film.
3. Best LCD TV That Doesn’t Use Quantum Dots
LG is notable for not using quantum dots in its higher-level TV sets, but with wide color gamut (WCG) becoming a requirement for high-end ultra-high-definition (UHD) sets, this is becoming an untenable position – or is it? In its booth on the CES show floor, LG had an elaborate but unclear booth presentation promoting its new “nano-cell display.” LG claimed “accurate colors maintained at any angle” for its new technology, and also claimed that colors are enhanced. The company said the nano-cell technology consisted of 1-nanometer particles uniformly distributed on the LCD cell.
What LG was calling “nano-cell display” on the show floor, LG Display (in its invitation-only suite in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s North Hall) was calling “IPS NanoColor.” There are two distinct types of IPS NanoColor. The current version, which is what LG was showing, is called just IPS NanoColor. Here, the nanoparticles – which are approximately 2 nm in diameter, not 1 – are indeed distributed on the front surface of the LCD, where they serve as a color filter and, perhaps, as a diffusion layer that improves the viewing angle.
Since it serves as an additional color filter, the IPS NanoColor layer obtains its increase in color purity at the expense of some efficiency. LGD said the technology delivers a color gamut of 90% Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI), compared to 96% for quantum dots. However, it claims a backlight unit efficiency of 78%, in contrast to QD’s 70%. LGD also claims that with IPS NanoColor, the color gamut at 80 degrees is still 91% of what it is normal to the screen surface, while the equivalent QD number is 28%. I look forward to seeing if independent testing supports these numbers.
The second-generation technology, IPS NanoColor II, takes a different approach. Here, the backlight uses blue LEDs, and 1 nm nanoparticles are arrayed between the LCD cells and the backlight. Some of these nanoparticles convert the blue light to red, while others convert to green, as quantum dots do. But these particles are too small to operate on the basis of quantum confinement. Another possibility is that these are phosphor particles, but phosphor particles are typically 50–100 times the diameter of LGD’s particles. LGD personnel were not permitted to provide any additional details, but they could say the particles had been developed in cooperation with LG Chemical.
NanoColor II, LGD said, will have a color gamut about the same as QDs, with a BLU efficiency slightly less than the first-gen NanoColor, but still slightly more than QD. The LGD reps suggested we could see IPS NanoColor II TV sets in 2018. For now, it will be very interesting to compare Samsung’s impressive new quantum-dot technology with the first-gen IPS NanoColor.
4. Best TV Display Less Than 1 mm Thick
In its suite, LGD showed the 77-in. “Wall-paper” OLED panel that will soon appear in the LG Signature OLED TV W, LG’s top-of-the-line OLED TV. (The 65-in. version is available now at an MSRP of 1 cent less than $8000.) The panel itself is 0.95 mm thick. The TV in which it will appear is 5 mm thick, with the electronics in a separate box that is
connected to the set with a cable.
The set incorporates all of the high-end features you would expect and then some, including an HDR system that supports HDR10, Dolby Vision, and hybrid log-gamma (HLG) HDR. The internal audio system supports 4.2 audio with Dolby Atmos immersive sound.
But the primary distinguishing factor of the W is that it is so thin (and sufficiently light at 27 lbs.) that it can be mounted directly on the wall – yes, like wallpaper. (The separate AV box weighs another 28 lbs.) It is impressive (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2: LG’s “Wallpaper” OLED TVs are thin enough and light enough to mount directly to a wall. The effect is striking. The price is high. Photo courtesy Ken Werner.
5. Best Biggest-Yet Electrophoretic Display
If you thought the largest active-matrix electrophoretic display you could buy was only 32 in. on the diagonal, it’s time to think again. In the Las Vegas Convention Center’s seemingly endless South Hall, E Ink showed its new 42-in. display in cooperation with QuirkLogic, whose networked whiteboard system (called “Quilla”) is the display’s first application. Both companies preferred the designation “eWriter” to “whiteboard.”
Quillas can wirelessly connect to Quillas in other offices down the hall or around the world for active collaboration and sharing. The 42-in. display has 85 ppi and 16 levels of gray, making the Quilla appropriate for the connected eWriter application.
Each Quilla normally hangs from a wall mount that delivers power and connects to broadband. Simply lifting the Quilla off the mount switches it to battery power and a WiFi connection. The unit weighs a bit over 20 pounds and will run all day on a battery charge.
QuirkLogic and E Ink claim that Quilla offers the feel of pen on paper, and I can verify that. There was just enough latency between moving the stylus and having the line on the display follow the stylus point to be annoying. E Ink Chief Strategy Officer Paul Apen and QuirkLogic’s Mike Maby agreed that the latency is primarily a software issue, and that QuirkLogic is confident of solving it in the near term. In addition to the connected business and design applications shown in the booth, QuirkLogic and E Ink see architecture as an important market. The companies expect to have more to say and show by the time of SID’s Display Week in May.
6. Best Glasses-Free 3D Display
Philadelphia-based Stream TV Networks showed the latest incarnation of its Ultra-D 3D system – the best (and, as far as I could tell, the only) glasses-free 3D system at CES. I was not impressed with early versions of the system, but the current one is very good and clearly benefits from starting with a 4K panel. There are no sweet (or sour) spots, with the 3D field seeming to be continuous over a wide range of viewing angles (Fig. 3, left).
There is a visible artifact: diagonal “raster” lines. (There isn’t really a raster but the lines look like the raster lines from an old CRT TV.) This shouldn’t be a deal breaker for most people, but you can see them (Fig. 3, right).
Fig. 3: Left: Stream TV’s glasses-free 3D system provides an immersive gaming experience that is far more comfortable than one that involves wearing VR goggles.
Right: Stream TV’s autostereoscopic effect is provided over a wide viewing angle without conventional sweet and sour spots.
The trade-off is these diagonal lines, which are noticeable at normal viewing distances but probably not a deal breaker for most viewers. Photos courtesy Ken Werner.
The Ultra-D system consists of a proprietary multi-layer optical stack with a precision layer laminated to a 4K screen. “The film’s unique design is based on the panel’s pixel layout and provides refractive and [diffractive] elements to create a 140-degree continuous light front,” according to a Stream white paper. The lamination equipment is operational at Pegatron, the company’s manufacturing partner. A TV or monitor maker must buy this display module from Pegatron. Another essential part of the system is a “rendering processor that decodes Ultra-D formatted content and assigns depth values to each of the 24 million subpixels for a natural and immersive effect.” Yes, the content must be in the Ultra-D format, but processors and tool sets are available that implement real-time conversion, native creation, or pre-conversion.
As good as Ultra-D is, I remain convinced that there are basic visual and psychological reasons why 3D TV is not generally appealing over the long term, with glasses or not (with the possible exception of gaming). But that still leaves a wide range of consumer and professional monitor-based applications up for grabs, with gaming high on the list.
7. Best Product Prediction from a TV Maker
The 35-year-old Chinese company TCL prides itself on its vast size and vertical integration. It is the world’s third-largest TV maker and the fastest growing TV maker in North America. It also holds the largest stake in panel maker CSOT, which is currently building a Gen 11 thin-film transistor and OLED plant at a total investment of US $7.7 billion.
TCL chairman and founder Li Dongsheng made introductory comments at TCL’s press conference. He read from prepared notes, and it was clear that speaking in English was not easy for him, but his efforts to do so anyway indicated the company’s seriousness about further expanding its penetration of the North American market.
Li and other executives talked up TCL’s extensive TV line-up, including its 4K, quantum-dot, and HDR technologies; its TCL Roku smart TVs; and (at 110 in.) the world’s largest 4K curved TV. I have spoken dismissively of curved TVs in the 55- and 65-in. range – and sales figures confirm that this is a fad in steep decline – but at really large sizes curved screens make geometrical and ergonomic sense. (Not that anyone is going to sell very many 110-in. TVs.)
Ranjit Gopi, marketing director and head of overseas marketing, emphasized the company’s major investments in global brand building, smart television technology, and smart manufacturing technology. The company has research centers around the world, he said, including one in Silicon Valley and a cooperative research center at MIT.
But for those in the audience who understood it, Gopi’s most interesting comment was this: Quantum-dot-on-chip TV is coming! He wouldn’t say when, but he did say it would be “sooner rather than later.” Why is this a big deal? Currently, the dominant approach to making quantum-dot-enhanced backlights is to distribute the QDs in a medium that is encapsulated between polymer films that protect them from oxygen and moisture. The multi-layer structure of this quantum-dot enhancement film (QDEF, which is a trademark owned by Nanosys) is more expensive than the QDs that are incorporated within it. An attractive alternative would be to deposit the QDs directly on the LED chips that are the backlight’s source of illumination, doing away with the film sandwich entirely.
One problem with this is that the QDs deteriorate rapidly when they are subjected to high luminous flux and, especially, heat. And LED chips are hot. Several companies have been working on this problem, including the recently sold QD Vision, whose IP was acquired by Samsung last fall. Another is Pacific Light Technologies (Portland, Oregon), whose CEO Doug Barnes was previously VP and GM of the specialty displays business at Planar. Could PLT be working with TCL? Barnes politely refused to comment.
With the technical difficulties confronting this technology, a dot-on-chip TV “sooner rather than later” would be a major step in the now-rapid evolution of QD-enhanced TVs.
8. Best “Me-Too” Product
With its A1E series of Bravia OLED TV sets, Sony is making an impressive entry into the very limited field of OLED TV manufacturers. Sony is using LGD OLED TV panels, of course, so there is no product differentiation there, but it has done its best to create a high-end product that includes impressive industrial design and presumably top-notch electronics. Whether the picture quality differs significantly from the LGD competition remains to be seen, but the image looks very good indeed (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4: It’s difficult to say if Sony’s electronics get a better picture out of LG’s OLED panel than LG’s own electronics, but the image quality
of Sony’s A1E series of Bravia OLEDs is excellent. Photo courtesy Ken Werner.
On display were 65- and 77-in. 4K HDR OLED sets featuring Sony’s Acoustic Surface technology, which incorporates transducers that produce sound by vibrating the entire display panel. This idea is not new, of course. At the beginning of this decade the British company NXT was working with the same idea, and showed prototypes of notebook computers using the technology. NXT customers produced a variety of thin speakers that were sold commercially.
One problem NXT encountered was interference between the screen’s pixel structure and the screen vibrations at lower acoustic frequencies. The solution was to cut off the frequency at 150 Hz and use a separate woofer, which presumably made the approach less attractive for laptop computers. We will soon see how Sony has dealt with this issue. What Acoustic Surface, and NXT’s SurfaceSound before it, can do is localize a sound at any point on the screen. Reportedly, Sony has done a good job of co-locating the origin of the sound and image content with a good deal of precision.
But this was a me-too feature as well. LGD was showing its Crystal Sound OLED in its North Hall suite. It’s hard to differentiate your product when the core technology comes from your supplier.
9. Best Display Product Without an Obvious Market
Arovia’s Spontaneous Pop-Up Display (SPUD) is a Kickstarter-funded product conceived by enthusiastic alumni of Rice University. Shown at the CES Unveiled press and analyst event, SPUD is an inflatable display with a Texas Instruments Digital Micromirror Device (DMD)-based projector and 24-in. rear-projection screen (Fig. 5).
Arovia says its “ideal initial customer is the ‘mobile millennial.’” But the market has repeatedly demonstrated its lack of interest in rear-projection displays, and there are proven alternatives such as miniature projectors, lightweight monitors, large tablets, and economical notebook PCs with 15.6- and 17.3-in. screens. (You still need a PC or tablet to drive the SPUD.) Am I missing something? For the sake of these agreeable young entrepreneurs, I hope so.
Fig. 5: Arovia’s pop-up display inflates from 1.5 lbs. of folded polymer film to a 24-in. rear-projection DMD display. Photos courtesy Ken Werner.
10. Best OLED Notebook PC
Also at CES Unveiled, Lenovo showed its 2017 ThinkPad X1 Yoga convertible notebook PC with a Gen 7 Intel Core i7, 16GB of memory, and up to 1TB of SSD storage. You can buy one with a 14-in. wide-quad high-definition 300-nit OLED touchscreen for a $300 premium, and this is clearly the world’s best OLED notebook because it’s the only one. Lenovo showed the 2016 model at last year’s CES, and said then that the OLED option was an experiment that would only be continued if sales justified it. Apparently, they did. But is the option being
extended to any other models? Not this year, said Lenovo’s David Harris.
11. Best Display Exhibit
This is easy, because it’s always the same one: LG Display’s by-invitation-only suite, which, this year, was in one of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s North Hall meeting areas. LGD frequently shows what is under the hood of the products its sister company, LG Electronics, is exhibiting on the show floor. And it often shows products and technologies that are under development.
We’ve already described the OLED panel that is only 0.95 mm thick, and IPS NanoColor. LGD showed a 55-in. full high-definition OLED with 45% transmittance. The combination of transparent clarity and color saturation was impressive. The panel is not a product yet, but LGD is exploring the technology for other applications.
One of those applications was an automotive see-through head-up display (HUD) mounted to the top of a mock-up car dashboard. In the well-lit demonstration area, the images were bright and clear, without the optical and viewing-angle limitations of projection HUDs. There is a problem, though. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration specifies that any HUD must have a transmittance of at least 70%. An LGD engineer said the company is hopeful that it can get from 45% to 70% transmittance.
A clever use of the transparent OLED was to lay it over an LCD instrument cluster. Warnings were directed alternately to the LCD and the OLED, giving the impression of the indicator moving toward and away from the driver, which was attention-grabbing. The OLED was also used to overlay speedometer and tachometer pointers and some digits.
A plastic OLED was used to make a wave-like display over the entire dash with a convex portion of the wave over the instrument cluster, concave over the center, and convex in front of the passenger. This display dash looked continuous but it used three tiled panels. Plastic OLED is a growing market, and we were told that LGD is well positioned to participate in this growth thanks to a G4.5 and a G6 fab. We were not permitted to take photographs of the automotive OLED displays.
Another demonstration focused on LCD pillar panels, displays with extreme aspect ratios for high-end signage installations. These panels were fabricated directly on the mother glass, not resized from displays with traditional aspect ratios, an LGD engineer said (Fig. 6).
Last year, LGD showed its S(uper)-IPS panel, which used rubbing with a soft cloth to establish the surface alignment of the liquid-crystal molecules. In the very early days of twisted-nematic LCD fabrication, this rubbing was done by hand, and some operators had “the touch” for doing it and others didn’t. Now, the rubbing is mechanized, with a rotating roller on which the rubbing fabric is mounted, but it’s still a shockingly 19th-century-looking process for a 21st-century high-tech factory. This year, LGD was showing off its U(ltra)-IPS technology, which delivers better viewing-angle performance, an LGD rep said, thanks to creating the alignment layer with ultraviolet light, patterning, and a polymerizable
layer instead of rubbing. UV alignment was developed many years ago, but has only fitfully been used in commercial products. Industry sentiment has often been that “rubbing is good enough,” but this is a competitive world and sentiments change.
Fig. 6: LGD’s pillar displays have aspect ratios as high as 58:9, luminance of 700 nits, and a color gamut of 100% of sRGB. Photo courtesy Ken Werner.
Quantum Dots Stole the (Display) Show
The most exciting near- and medium-term developments are still in quantum dots, including air-stable dots, dot-on-chip, and – down the line – true QLED. Flexible OLEDs for automotive and other applications should also be high on the list, as is solution processing to dramatically reduce the cost of OLED displays. We didn’t see any of that at CES because it’s not here yet, and is taking longer than many of us expected. Until it comes, the dramatic improvements in QD-enhanced displays will satisfy the market for all but super-premium large-screen products. •
Ken Werner is principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices and television. He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies re-positioning themselves within the display industry or using displays in their products. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.