The future of display technology

In attempting to forecast the future of displays, we`re inclined to paraphrase Charles Dickens: It will be the best of times for some. It will be the worst of times for others. Some technologies will survive - indeed, thrive - but others will be relegated to the footnotes of industry history.

Apr 1st, 1998

The future of display technology

By Zeev Kalansky

In attempting to forecast the future of displays, we`re inclined to paraphrase Charles Dickens: It will be the best of times for some. It will be the worst of times for others. Some technologies will survive - indeed, thrive - but others will be relegated to the footnotes of industry history.

With the third millennium approaching, military and commercial display consumers find themselves with an unprecedented selection from which to choose. The bridge from the old cathode ray tube (CRT) workhorse to newly emerging families of flat-panel displays spans a broad variety of technologies.

Toward which of those technologies will the industry shift? Nobody has a guaranteed answer to that question, but there are a couple of trends that will be important factors in determining the near-term path.

The convergence of the computer into the display

Ever since the ENIAC era, one of the impetuses of the computer industry has been the theory that "smaller is better." Thirty years ago, computers were behemoths requiring enormous amounts of space and cooling (and yielding minuscule computing power by today`s standards). With the emergence of the personal computer in the 1970s, the race began for progressively smaller units.

Today, the PC has reached a stage at which it can no longer shrink without losing some of its functionality. This owes more to physical constraints that the human body imposes than to engineering capabilities. Certainly the computer`s processing power will continue to expand without increasing the size of the unit, but input and output peripherals will always be subject to the size of fingers, the limitations of vision, or voice recognition.

Since computer designers must satisfy screen size constraints without compromising viewability, the display becomes the component that drives the system design. The trend will be toward making the computer an adjunct of the display, rather than making the display a peripheral of the computer. Inputs can be provided via touch screen menus or voice recognition, eliminating the need for mouse or keyboard devices.

While the argument can be made for high-resolution helmet- and goggle-mounted flat-panel displays, these will likely remain in the military arena for aviation and combat vehicle applications. The typical user will continue to rely on stand-alone units for viewing data.

A new "smart" display system from Interstate Electronics Corporation (IEC) is a good example of the self-contained computer. This unit was designed for processing batch-oriented applications. It is essentially a "black box," ideally suited for remote environments such as power generator plants, industrial controls, locomotives, and mining operations. Many of the applications currently employed in these environments display only alphanumeric information. By incorporating new graphical user interfaces, the dynamics of these tedious operations would change dramatically.

The industrial user is no longer interested in deriving his information from arrays of idiot lights. The MTV generation is gradually taking over the controls. Today`s user wants - no, expects - graphics, color, sound, and interactivity. The modern system operator has grown up in a sensorially stimulated environment, and has come to expect being fed information in an easily assimilated format.

Additionally, the use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) or customized COTS software results in data that is much more valuable in terms of transportability and cross-platform usability than it was in previous generations of computers. Customized COTS software can be modified to fill the customers` specific needs, while retaining a proven, reliable core design.

The incorporation of user-friendly software in a rugged self-contained unit provides an outstanding solution for consumers who want an industrial-strength computer with a contemporary interface.

The typical IEC WarriorVision display includes a machined front bezel that provides mounting surfaces for the optical filter and for mounting of the display to the customer`s panel.

This front bezel provides precision-machined surfaces for sealing of the display and electronics from intrusive moisture and other contaminants and provides the basic support structure for the display electronics. The rear cover, constructed of sheet aluminum, provides further protection of the electronics and is thermally tied to the high power-dissipating components to provide short conductive paths for heat dissipation.

This lightweight construction provides a rigid support for the display and electronics without the penalty of a thick-walled casting. The IEC design provides a comparable surface area for free convection cooling. An advantage of lighter-weight chassis is lower transmitted "G" forces into the electronics and display when the unit is subjected to dynamic shock and vibration environments.

Internally, the electronic assemblies are securely attached to carrier plates with closely spaced fasteners. Component leads and wiring harnesses have strain relief for stress reduction. This mounting technique significantly reduces transmitted vibration and provides minimal stress on electronic component mounting leads. These vibration/shock isolation techniques rely not on a bulky chassis, but on judicious selection of the support and mounting of the electronic assemblies. These techniques have been proven in successful environmental testing.

The front bezel assembly and internal support carrier plates support the AMLCD display and optical filter. The mounting of these critical glass components uses techniques developed at IEC. Compliant elastomeric supports provide a moisture seal and damping of transmitted shock/ vibration.

Although this system is panel-mounted, users can easily adapt it to a portable shell, and upgrade the degree of ruggedization to the users` environmental needs. The design of this particular system benefited greatly from field user inputs. Features such as field-replaceable backlights and captive hardware are a direct result of maintenance suggestions received from the field. The system was designed with zero downtime as a primary goal.

Two factors lead one to believe that displays will become the determining factor in computer selection: their increasingly central role in system design, and ever narrowing processing standards.

Consumer demand

For a display technology to be successful, there must be a powerful consumer demand driving it. This may seem to be stating the obvious, but it`s an important point that is often overlooked by earnest engineers who lack the ability to identify marketing potential.

From a marketing perspective, the old saying about necessity being the mother of invention should be restated, "perceived need is the mother of invention." One technology may be superior to another in many respects, but until the consumer decides (or is convinced by the manufacturer) that it is a desirable product, it will languish on the shelves.

A good illustration of this point is the cathode ray tube. The CRT celebrated its hundredth anniversary last year - Karl Ferdinand Braun invented it in 1897 - but it did not attract much attention until late 1940s, when television created a broad-based consumer demand.

Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) offer another good example of consumer demand catching up with a pre-existing technology. LCDs have been around since 1970s but were not widely used until early 1990`s. It was the growing popularity of laptop computers that caused the business to soar.

Plasma and electroluminescent (EL) displays have yet to benefit from "discovery" by a broad consumer market. Despite their inherent ruggedness and good resolution, it is not likely that the EL display has much of a future as an in-demand consumer product.

Plasma displays, on the other hand, have shown considerable potential. Large, wall-mounted units and ultra-thin TV displays are the kind of applications that are relatively easy to exploit. Plasma TVs are already available, but the "perceived need" is yet to be created. It will happen, perhaps in parallel with wider acceptance of high definition television (HDTV).

Active-matrix LCD television is still a couple of years off, but it, too, has enormous potential in the consumer market. Field-emission displays (FEDs) are another emerging technology that shows considerable promise.

So, the future of display technology will likely entail the consolidation of the industry into a handful of proven, accepted technologies. CRTs will be around for the near term, but as flat panels increase in size and decrease in cost, the CRT market share will shrink dramatically. Flat-panel displays offer the size, weight, and power advantages that CRTs cannot deliver. Which flat-panel technologies survive - whether it`s AMLCD, PMLCD, EL, plasma, FED, LED, or an entirely new form - depends upon how adaptable they are to the cost and image quality demanded by the consumer market.

The display will drive system design. As the processing power becomes increasingly robust, the self-contained computer will become more and more ubiquitous. It will be found in all kinds of environments, whether delivering static information or processing live data. It is inevitable that small, portable units with minimal power requirements will become as commonplace as the radio or television.

Bottom line? Displays in the future will likely be the most important component in the computer industry, and the industry must be ready for it. It`s a daunting challenge, but an exciting prospect.

Zeev Kalansky is director of business development for display products for Interstate Electronics Corp. in Anaheim, Calif. He is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, with a degree in electrical engineering, and of the University of Redlands where he received an MBA degree. He has more than 20 years of experience in military and commercial electronics, including positions as systems engineer, product manager, marketing and sales.

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