Displays: the next big thing?

32Just when you thought that nothing could challenge the dominance of LCD technology in screens, the last few months has seen the emergence of an alternative that may well change the game, believes Ian McMurray.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (sound familiar?) I worked for a company that felt it had a technology that could revolutionise displays. This was at a time when plasma pretty much dominated the flat panel market, and LCD screens were just making their first appearance. This technology could enable the creation of slim TVs and screens – but offered numerous advantages over plasma, and substantially superior image quality to that of which LCD was capable back then (which, admittedly, wasn’t great). The company’s ambition was that the technology would come to dominate the consumer TV market.

It never succeeded in that ambition (although it did eventually carve out a substantial proportion of the projector market for itself). Why was that? First and foremost – in my humble opinion, anyway – the company underestimated the engineering talent and determination of Japan Inc.  Second: it felt that Joe Consumer would be happy to pay a premium for better image quality. (I still recall vividly a conversation with a colleague who believed that, given limited bandwidth, consumers would choose better image quality over greater choice of channels. Yeah, right.) Third, it underestimated how that same Joe Consumer liked thin – really thin. LCD displays were always slimmer than this technology would allow, it being fundamentally a projection technology.

(Which reminds me of a common misapprehension – that consumers ‘bought’ HD. They never did. They were perfectly happy with the image quality they had. HD came as a free gift with the thin and slim that consumers really wanted.)

Why am I telling you all this? Because, if there’s one thing that’s captured my attention over the past 20 years (inevitably, given my background) it’s been the developments in displays. Plasma – still, for many, something of a benchmark in image quality – has gradually faded away, its issues with power consumption, weight and image retention dragging it down. LCD displays got better and better – and, with the introduction of LED-backlighting, transformed themselves. (And no, Joe Consumer, that’s not an LED TV in your lounge. It’s still an LCD.)

Phenomenon

In the commercial world, the uptake of LCD screens has been a phenomenon. It’s not just about resolution or contrast or perceived image quality (although LCD is now capable of delivering absolutely stunning HD images). They’re now capable of either landscape or portrait operation; they can run 24/7; you can deploy them outside; and you can remotely manage them, or attach digital signage media players to them. It’s no wonder they’re ubiquitous.

And: their case has been helped by the progressive reduction in bezel width, which ended up becoming a significant area of competition between manufacturers battling for acceptance in the growing market for video walls where the invisible bezel – to deliver a seamless image – has become something of a holy grail. I’ve lost track of where we are with that one, but I know there are screens out there with a 0.7mm bezel.

At the other end of the scale, we’ve also seen the proliferation of LED screens. Sure, they’ve been around forever. Which of us hasn’t been to a tradeshow and been dazzled – blinded, almost – by a huge LED display with its brightness turned up to 11 (another reference for you movie buffs…)? Of course, LED displays have traditionally dominated the outdoor market where viewing distances were measured in hundreds of yards – but they were still highly visible.

LED has always had big advantages. It’s relatively power-efficient. It’s weather-proof (some would say bomb-proof). And: it’s bezel-less. But oh, the distance between those pixels… Get too close, and it seemed like the image was contrived from domestic light bulbs.

But guess what? LED pixel pitches have been shrinking – big time. One product I’m especially familiar with – because the company’s EMEA vice president, Steve Scorse, and I go back to his days with AmPro (remember them?) who were an early adopter of the technology I described above – is the Camellia LED screen from SiliconCore.  It won both Installation magazine’s and rAVe Publications’ Best of Show at ISE earlier this year, and followed that up with Sound and Video Contractor’s Best of Show award at NAB in April. I was at ISE, and I saw it for myself. To say that it changed my preconceptions about what LED display technology is capable of would be a gross understatement. The images it delivered were pretty stunning.

Excitement

Why the excitement? The Camellia features a 0.95mm pixel pitch. Yes, you read that right. 0.95mm. That’s around a tenth of the pixel pitch of the most commonly-deployed outdoor LED screens (although that’s shrinking all the time). Now, admittedly, 0.95mm is not even close to the pixel pitch (which no-one ever talks about – and I have no idea what it is) of an LCD screen. With the Camellia, you’d need a 165” LED screen to deliver a 4K image.  Even so: it is, in its way – and to use what’s rapidly becoming a very tired adjective – transformative. (Or, if you prefer, it’s a paradigm shift. Yawn…)

But seriously: it creates a whole new set of market opportunities. Now, for the first time, LED screens can practicably be installed indoors in applications where viewing distances will be much shorter (SiliconCore says less than a metre). They deliver very high brightness. They consume even less power than an LCD screen (so cost of ownership is better). They’re bezel-less and modular – meaning that seamless multi-screen displays are limited only by the client’s/integrator’s imagination.

34SiliconCore may have grabbed the glory – but, in fact, they’re not alone in achieving a sub-1.0mm LED pixel pitch. Also at ISE this year, Leyard , who are rapidly becoming a force in the displays industry, showed what the company called a ‘technology demonstrator’ of theTW0.9. As the name suggests, this features a 0.9mm pixel pitch.

Also at ISE, AOTO had its M Series 0.75mm LRD screen that the company said was deliverable immediately. The show also saw Absen feature a 1.22mm unit – and the company is said to have improved on that since February. Unilumin has its UTV0.8 display (you can probably guess the pixel pitch) and is rumoured to be working on a 0.6mm version. Unconfirmed rumours also indicate that Christie Digital is a player in this emerging market.

Big names?

Cool as the technology may be, though, its success will depend largely on how its pricing stacks up against comparable LCD screens. Right now, LED manufacturers are being pretty coy about that. Another factor that may well influence the success of sub 1.0mm LED screens is whether the technology is one that will be espoused by – with the greatest respect to SiliconCore, Absen, Leyard and co. – industry majors like LG, NEC, Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba and Sony. It’s pretty much a marketing given that, for a new product or technology to succeed, it has to have at least one big name behind it for the market to take it seriously.

Despite those reservations, though, what LED has going for it is that it’s a proven technology. As things stand, the only other contender with the potential to make a substantial dent in the position of dominance enjoyed by LCD is OLED. I have to admit to being a big fan of the OLED displays I’ve seen: the image quality of which they’re capable is utterly sumptuous. The colour depth, brightness and contrast ratio are incomparable. So far, though, OLED is unproven.

In the industry, rumours abound that it is prone to image retention. It’s said that no-one can really predict yet how long an OLED display will last. Yes, the first consumer grade OLED TVs are hitting the market – notably from LG – to rave reviews, but there’s world of difference between what’s expected of the screen in your living room, and what’s expected from, for example, digital signage.

But, on the other hand: a display that you can stick on a wall like a piece of paper (prototypes have been seen that are just 0.3mm thick), or roll it up, or create non-rectangular images with it – that has to be a display technology worth engineers spending some time on to get it right, given that they seem to have the image quality performance nailed.

There’s no doubt: these are exciting times in the world of displays. 4K is establishing itself, HDR looks very promising, 8K is probably not far away (the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be broadcast in 8K, and the first 8K screens have been unveiled). (Which raises a question about whether anyone really needs 8K, given that, to really benefit from what 4K delivers, you need a 65”+ screen – so how big would an 8K screen need to be to justify the investment? But anyway…)

Does fine pitch LED have what it takes to become a significant player? Will OLED eventually dominate?  Who knows? The best I can tell you is: it’d be a foolish company indeed who bet on a brand new technology that could out-do what we have today – and what we know is coming.

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