By Chris Chinnock
ANAHEIM, Calif. - The needs of military and aerospace display users today are inextricably tied to developments in the commercial marketplace - including to major Asian suppliers.
Last May`s annual SID `98 conference in Anaheim, Calif., gave buyers and integrators a preview of some of the new display technologies coming down the road. Sponsoring SID `98 was the Society for Information Display (SID) of San Jose, Calif.
Plasma display panels have been available from Fujitsu Ltd. of for a couple of years now. Their new third-generation, 42-inch-diagonal plasma display is setting the standard for performance with its contrast, 160-degree viewing angle, color palettes, and fast video response. The display, which is four to six inches thick, offers a large display surface that does not take up much space.
Managers of a variety of military and aerospace projects are considering, evaluating, and deploying plasma displays. Those designing submarines, logistics centers, command & control units, offices, and conference rooms all prize the "hang-on-the-wall" form factor.
What was clear from SID `98 was that real new competition in the plasma display market. Several manufacturers such as Mitsubishi, NEC, Hitachi, and Pioneer, all of Tokyo, Matsushita of Osaka, Japan, and Thomson of Velizy, France, are starting to ship plasma displays. Some are offering the wide 16-to-9-aspect format while others are going with 4-to-3. Most company leaders are sampling products but plan to begin mass production within a year or so.
Interestingly, a sizable market for plasma displays in the 20-to-35-inch range is also emerging. For example, Fujitsu`s Joe Virginia points out that designers of the information centers onboard government and commercial surface ships have a strong desire to replace the large cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors they currently use.
New at SID `98 were demonstrations of 50-inch plasma displays from Matsushita (Panasonic) and NEC that should reach production next year. Matsushita`s panel ran digital HDTV signals that illustrated how much better this source material can make a display perform. Some imagery was so crisp it looked almost three-dimensional.
Officials of Litton Data Systems of San Diego unveiled a Fujitsu 42-inch panel integrated with a touch screen. Also of significance was a demonstration of a plasma-addressed liquid crystal (PALC) display from Philips, which held up well under bright illumination. Yet Philips officials have set no manufacturing plans. PALC displays use a matrix of plasma gas cells, instead of silicon transistors, to switch the liquid crystal material.
Micro-displays heat up
Miniature flat panels, or micro-displays, are quickly emerging as the display engines that will power a host of commercial and military products. Military systems designers are particularly interested in this type of display for head-mounted applications for infantry, vehicle, helicopter, and fixed-wing aircraft applications.
At SID `98 was the announcement of a partnership between Displaytech of Longmont, Colo., and Samsung of Seoul, S. Korea. Samsung officials plan to use micro-displays to power rear-projection monitors and a high-definition television (HDTV) product that will feature resolution of 720 by 1280 pixels. Displaytech officials have rounded out their product line to offer VGA (640-by-480-pixel resolution), XGA (1,024-by-768-pixel resolution) and SXGA (1,280-by-1,024-pixel resolution) micro-displays with production set to begin by June.
Another new entrant also debuted at SID `98. Colorado Microdisplay, of Boulder, Colo., introduced a SVGA micro-display integrated into a headset, along with a developer`s toolkit. The company is the first "fabless" micro-display manufacturer since experts will use existing silicon foundries and LCD assembly facilities to produce their displays. Colorado Microdisplay and Displaytech devices will rely on RGB color sequential methods to achieve a full-color output.
Lighter, thinner, less power
For direct-view displays on ruggedized laptops, commercial trends are helping to reduce display weight, thickness, and power consumption, while increasing brightness. For example, a new 13.3-inch XGA panel from NEC Electronics of Santa Clara, Calif., cut 75 grams, 2 millimeters, and 0.4 watts, compared to a previous model, yet boosted the brightness. Other vendors showed similar gains.
To improve reliability, engineers from some vendors are also looking at low-temperature poly-silicon (LTPS) processing technology, which enables specialists to fabricate on-screen transistors and off-screen driver circuits simultaneously on the same glass substrate. Experts from Toshiba in Tokyo note that LTPS processing enables them to reduce component count from 280 to 200 for a typical XGA notebook module, and reduce the number of internal connections from more than 4,000 to just 200. The company demonstrated a 13.3-inch LTPS display, but production plans are not yet set.
For military applications that require battery operation, the use of low-power displays is always of interest. Reflective displays with partial backlights offer big power savings, but so far they have been mostly monochrome with fairly poor visual performance. Yet at SID `98 manufacturers showed they can offer color reflective displays with much better performance than their predecessors.
For example, designers at Sharp of Osaka, Japan say they have now started production on a 2.5-inch color, highly reflective (HR) thin-film transistor (TFT), which targets audio/visual applications. Following it will be a 3.9-inch model for portable information tools, and an 8.4-inch model for mobile PCs. Sharp`s Joel Pollack notes that the 8.4-inch model is one-third thinner, one-half lighter, and uses one-seventh the power of a comparable transmissive TFT. All of the HR-TFT products exhibit a 100-degree viewing cone, 50-microsecond response, and a 260,000-color palette.
Also showing color reflective displays were Philips of Eindhoven, the Netherlands, Hitachi, and Toshiba. Philips experts will sample an 8.4-inch product this fall, Toshiba officials will enter mass production of a 8.4-inch LTPS reflective color display by next winter, and Hitachi officials are talking about next year for production of a 8-to-10-inch product.
Military program managers are also talking about cholesteric displays from Kent Displays of Kent, Ohio. These displays are bi-stable, meaning that once an image is written, no further power is necessary to maintain it. They are under consideration for display of maps and other hand-held, battery-powered uses.
Specialty applications grow
Fierce competition among flat-panel makers is starting to help lower prices. Experts say they will cost less than $1,000 this year. According to DisplaySearch officials of Austin, Texas, NEC is the current market leader in flat-panel displays, and their 20.1-inch SXGA panel is the best selling size.
SID `98 was a chance for most manufacturers to fill out their LCD product lines in the 13-to-21-inch range. NEC for example, added 15.4-inch and 18.1-inch panels. Samsung added a 21.3-inch UXGA and a 17-inch, while Fujitsu premiered a 15-inch panel, and Philips expanded with an 18.1-inch model.
Announcing improvements in viewing angle technology were dpiX of Palo Alto, Calif. - a supplier of display glass to Planar Systems of Beaverton, Ore., for military integration.
Field emission displays (FEDs) have the visual and environmental performance of CRTs, but the profile and power budget of a flat panel. Some experts believe they can find a home in consumer, commercial, and military applications, but most concede they will have to be better than, not equal to, LCDs if they are to capture market share.
For example, officials of Pixtech in Mountain View, Calif., say their 5.2-inch monochrome FED is crisper and easier to read than a competitive passive-matrix LCD. But because the FED is about twice as expensive as passive matrix, they are having a hard time selling in the instrumentation market.
Representatives of Motorola of Tempe Ariz., another FED proponent, showcased their 5.1-inch color FED running a colorized version of "The Wizard of Oz." They are now doing instrumentation designs with their 2.9-inch display and will sample 5.6-inch FED devices this fall. Production should begin in 1999.
Clearly, U.S. military and aerospace users must look to other countries to get a full range of displays for their applications. But officials of the United States Display Consortium (USDC) of San Jose, Calif., are trying to invigorate a domestic display industry. Since 1993, they have dispersed more than $53 million to support development of display processing techniques, components, equipment, materials, and factory management.
Just after SID `98, USDC officials announced that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va., awarded them an additional $10 million to continue these efforts. But they will place a new emphasis on examining the opportunities for FEDs, organic LEDs, plasma displays, and projection display systems. Researchers from the USDC will work with their counterparts at Stanford Resources of San Jose, Calif., on a new market study that will look at the uses of flat panel displays in instrumentation, industrial control, point of sale, office automation, telecommunications, medical, education, and ruggedized markets.
Interface electronics gain importance
SID `98 seemed to highlight the growing importance of interface electronics as part of the solution to building or integrating a flat-panel display for a myriad of other applications. In general, the job of interface electronics is to condition video or computer signals for presentation on a flat panel display. This requires image resizing, frame-rate conversion, video de-interlacing, automatic image optimization, and color (gamma) correction. The interface electronics are a major cost component - especially in flat-panel monitors.
Perhaps the most exciting announcement at SID `98 came from leaders of start-up PixelWorks of Portland, Ore. They announced a single-chip application-specific integrated circuit solution that simplifies the need for a display controller board. Video and computer input signals can flow to LCDs, plasma displays or even to digital mirror devices. Chips will not be available however, until next spring.