CRTs, LCDs divide military display market applications

Nov. 1, 1997
For the present, cathode ray tubes and liquid crystal displays dominate, yet newer technologies are on the horizon for future 3-D holographic displays of images, text, and video for real-time command and control applications.

For the present, cathode ray tubes and liquid crystal displays dominate, yet newer technologies are on the horizon for future 3-D holographic displays of images, text, and video for real-time command and control applications.

By John Rhea

Military flat-panel display applications are evolving in parallel with the evolution of military requirements: leading-edge technologies are pushing for tactical operations in the field while conventional - and less costly - technologies continue to dominate the physically less demanding environments of command and control centers.

This means a division between the venerable cathode ray tube (CRT) for the latter and some combination of four technologies under the aegis of solid-state electronics for the former: active matrix liquid crystal displays (LCDs), field emission devices (FEDs), plasma displays, and electroluminescent (EL) displays. The assumption is that the new technologies will nibble away at the CRT business. This is particularly true of LCDs as they find new applications in medical, automotive, industrial, and even consumer electronics markets, but that day is not here yet.

Steven Jan, vice president of engineering and product marketing at Cornerstone Imaging Inc. in San Jose, Calif., estimates that the crossover point for solid-state flat-panel displays to make major inroads in the military applications now dominated by CRTs is to get their price performance ratio down to only twice that of CRTs; he does not look for that to occur for another two to five years. For example, in an "apples-to-apples" comparison, Jan says a 14-inch active matrix LCD runs 7 to 10 times a comparable CRT.

But this event horizon represents a shortening of at least one year over the past year, says Zeev Kalansky, director of business development for display products at Interstate Electronics Corp. in Anaheim, Calif. The trend is definitely toward LCDs for the high-resolution portable applications, he says, with plasmas filling a niche in lower resolution larger displays, such as the "hang-on-the-wall" TV set. Another niche market is cellular telephones for FEDs.

Today`s CRTs trace their origin to the kinescope invented by the Russian-born scientist Vladmir Zworykin, at Westinghouse Electric Corp. in 1924. Despite their bulk, fragility, and high power requirements, CRTs have the momentum that makes them difficult to dislodge. Part of the reason is the normal price erosion common to mature electronic products.

Offsetting the declining prices, however, is the greater number of displays required as a new generation of computer users demands greater graphical representation. Today`s warriors (and consumers) expect information to be displayed as icons, not in alpha-numeric form.

As a result, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) approaches have been relatively easier for CRTs than for solid-state flat-panel displays. Because they have been standardized over the years, particularly in 19-inch rack mounts for military applications, CRTs do not face the form factor problem that demands more customization for flat-panel displays and therefore uneconomical volumes.

What the military display industry needs is the economies of scale made possible by a growing commercial applications base, and this is what officials of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had in mind when they launched the original High Definition Systems program in 1989. Annual funding for this program peaked in 1994 at about $150 million and has been dropping steadily ever since to about $40 million today.

Nonetheless, DARPA`s spade work made possible the new generation of high definition television (HDTV) that is being mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That decision should do much to create a viable production base. In its decision last December to establish a single HDTV standard, the FCC initiated the process to convert the current National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) analog format, which evolved in the 1960s, to the new HDTV digital format. The conversion process begins in 1999 for the major networks in the largest television markets, and all noncommercial stations must convert to digital by 2003. A subsequent ruling adopted by the FCC in April targets 2006 for cessation of all analog service.

For consumers, this will mean a blending of their home TV sets and personal computers in a new era of interactive entertainment and information. Already, the displays of PCs and workstations are far superior to the NTSC standard of 754 by 486 pixels of interlaced images at 30 frames per second. For the current computer generation, this ranges up to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels and refresh rates up to 80 Hz with the color information sent separately as red, green and blue non-interlaced signals.

For TV viewers, the improved display is just that: a better picture on their home set. For computer users (particularly in the military), however, the enhanced image is part of the two-way flow of information, and those extra, speedier pixels greatly increase the bandwidth for the most complex real-time computation applications. Complex simulations, for example, can be conducted among geographically dispersed participants via the Internet or other transmission media.

As part of the move to HDTV, solid-state displays can play a key role in the more demanding applications, serving as the equivalent of semiconductor memories: a 1,600 by 1,200 display would contain 19.2 megabits of information that would functionally amount to a dynamic random access memory updated 80 times a second. And, as semiconductor products, they also face the problem of achieving economical yields.

This was the original intention of the DARPA program: to come up with a better way of transmitting digital data and video images in battlefield command and control applications. The idea was to create a seamless two-way flow of information from command authorities at the highest levels down to individual units operating in the field.

Moreover, as the military continues its downsizing, fewer units will be available for deployment and their effectiveness will be determined by the commanders` ability to determine battlefield conditions and deploy the forces where they are needed - all in real time. Army and Marine Corps units down to the squad level will tie into the system via backpack transmitter/ receiver modules, and intelligence data - also in real time - will flow from a variety of sensors, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Tactical aircraft and ships operating around the edges of the battle area are expected to be tied into the Cooperative Engagement Capability currently being developed by the Navy.

The military services are also becoming increasingly dependent on the same distribution media that serve PC users and home TV viewers alike: communication satellites, optical fiber trunk lines, and the Internet. This is true for two basic reasons: (1) the military can no longer afford its own dedicated communications channels and (2) even if it could, it cannot keep pace with the rapidly advancing commercial technology. That technology, by the way, is also available to all potential adversaries, as was demonstrated by the warring factions in Bosnia, which used cellular telephones and the Internet more effectively than the peacekeeping forces.

Maj. Gen. David Gust, the Army`s program executive officer for intelligence, electronic warfare, and sensors at the Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM), in Fort Monmouth, N.J., is a key customer for display technology, and he has a short list of requirements. First, he wants lighter, rugged displays he can mount in Humvees instead of being dependent on 2-1/2- and 5-ton trucks, so he can place the displays outside the vehicles where the field commanders can view incoming information from UAVs and other reconnaissance assets. He also wants an open architecture to tie together heterogeneous sensors and displays.

Furthermore, he has his own pricing profile in mind, and it is not an either/or situation of COTS vs. full mil specs. In his scenario, if the standard commercial product is 1X, the usual ruggedized version is 2X, and the fully qualified military standard display is 10X; what he wants is 5X to achieve the appropriate price performance.

The basic research for future generations of flat-panel displays continues, meanwhile, at the U.S. Display Consortium (USDC) established under DARPA sponsorship in 1994. To date, according to M. Robert Pinnel, USDC`s chief technical officer, the consortium has committed $48 million in DARPA funds, matched by $59 million from industry. Speaking at this year`s Society for Information Display symposium in Boston, Pinnel cited these accomplishments:

- Polaroid, Norwood, Mass., has invested in an automated in-line optical film processing facility to supply films that will meet the harsh environments of military avionics and land vehicle applications, as well as future commercial use;

- display Inspection Systems, Wixom, Mich., is using a patented black beam interferometry technology to develop an advanced inspection tool to detect defects in glass substrates; and

- Litton Data Systems, San Diego, is developing next generation backlights for cockpit avionics and commercial sunlight-readable applications, which require wide dimming range for night vision operation. Among the commercial applications being considered are automatic teller machines (ATMs) and kiosk information displays.

Looking even further to the future, a persistent area of research interest has been real-time holographic displays for a variety of military simulation and command and control applications that could share a production base with commercial users, such as the entertainment industry.

This technology continues to be over the horizon because of two principal technical challenges: computational speed and high-bandwidth modulation of visible light. Scientists at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have estimated that, to transmit a holographic image and update it 60 times a second so that the human eye can be tricked into believing it is moving, a fully functional system would require data rates of 12 trillion bits per second. That`s 2 million times faster than a home TV set.

Nearly a decade ago the MIT researchers created crude real-time holograms by using data compression techniques and supercomputers operating at gigahertz rates, but any commercial applications will require even more sophisticated techniques and computers capable of terahertz speeds. There are two routes to get there: the "brute force" approach of simply beefing up the computer power and the bandwidth, and the "elegant" solution of developing sophisticated signal compression techniques. Real-time holography, if it ever comes to pass, will use both.

There`s been some progress since then, most of it at MIT, with new holographic bandwidth compression techniques and faster digital hardware, but the largest holographic display ("holovideo") reported to date is only the size of a human hand. As a measure of the complexity of holographic displays, a typical 2-D image is a pixel array with a sample spacing of about 100 microns. A holovideo must compute a holographic fringe with a sample spacing of 0.5 micron to cause modulated light to diffract and form a 3-D image. For a display the size of a human hand that amounts to more than 100 billion samples.

While the necessary computing power is expected to be available within another two decades, the other hurdle, optical modulation, is being addressed by research in advanced LCDs and surface acoustic wave devices capable of reducing the complexity of the equipment needed to produce holographic images, thus reducing costs. That research, which may be useful across the board in military and commercial applications, continues.

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Planar is targeting the medical, industrial, and transportation markets with its ColorBrite line, but is aiming more at being a value-added supplier to upgrade systems with compatible displays and thus lengthen product life cycles.

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Engineers at Solaris Systems in Anaheim, Calif., last year launched a compatible active matrix liquid crystal display (AMLCD) line. The company also has built 19- and 17-inch color CRT displays in both rugged and full military specification configurations

CRTs seek special applications

For applications that don`t need the ruggedness and the weight and power savings of solid-state displays, cathode ray tube (CRT) technology still holds an upper hand on price. Now, the CRT manufacturers are upgrading their products to give them another edge: productivity.

"The most expensive element of a computing system is the user who sits in front of it," notes Kenneth Westrick, senior vice president and general manager of the Display Products Division of Cornerstone Imaging Inc. in San Jose, Calif.

In April Cornerstone officials launched a high-performance color CRT monitor designed to improve the productivity of all-day computer users: a 20-inch model in a 17-inch package at an estimated price of $1,295.

These monitors target corporate desktops, where large screens are required for optimum productivity. Company officials also maintain that quality monitors are a good investment. Cornerstone leaders cite studies by the market research firm International Data Corp. concluding that monitors are living longer, many times through multiple computer upgrade cycles, shifting the monitor buying decision from an expected replacement item to a long-term care strategy.

However, one company that has been based in the CRT market, Solaris Systems, Anaheim, Calif., a division of Genisco Technology Corp., last year launched a compatible active-matrix liquid crystal display (AMLCD) line. Company engineers built 19- and 17-inch color CRT displays in rugged and full-military configurations and entered the AMLCD market with a 10.4-inch display as part of its Genie family of flat panel displays.

In August Solaris added a 20.1-inch color AMLCD with a microprocessor-controlled built-in test that fits in a 19-inch rack and meets Mil-Std 810. Deliveries begin the end of this year, and pricing for small quantities is in the $18,000 range, says Jim Foti, vice president for business development.

ADI Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif., the American subsidiary of Taiwan-based ADI Corp., meanwhile, is pushing its line of CRT displays for computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, and computer-aided engineering (CAD/CAM/CAE) applications.

This year company officials rounded out the line with monitors spanning the dimensions from 15 to 21 inches, beginning in February with a 21-inch model at an estimated price of $1,599, and then in June with 15- and 17-inch units at $349 and $599, respectively, and in August a 19-inch monitor in its MicroScan line at $975. ADI also extended its warranty period to 42 months. - J.R.

Display suppliers on the web

ADI Systems:

Aydin Displays:

Chip Supply:

Cornerstone Imaging:

Electronic Designs:

Litton Data Systems:

Litton Guidance & Control Systems:


Solaris Systems:

Developing the chips behind the screen

In parallel with the growth of the flat panel display market is an increasing need for the driving circuitry. To fill this niche, Chip Supply Inc. in Orlando, Fla., is launching a custom display product support service for display manufacturers.

Chip Supply is in the business of testing bare semiconductor die and is a supplier of known good die for multichip modules. The new service, aimed at the high-end commercial and military markets, involves validating selected die to mechanical and electrical specifications. Customers can also arrange for the company to produce custom active-matrix display drivers in custom tape carrier package formats.

Although Chip Supply is still putting together its engineering and sales staff for a stand-alone product line, the company`s long-term goal is to develop a product line of display drivers across the spectrum of military, industrial, and commercial applications. Working with the customer, company designers would customize the package to drive both the row and column of a particular display. - J.R.

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