Visionary Technology

Disruptive technologies like LCoS and OLEDs are shouldering their way to the forefront of a microdisplay market in flux.

Where there is technology, there is change, and the display market is a case in point. Once upon a time, CRT technology was the lone contender of the display world, cornering every niche from monitors to televisions. Then liquid crystal displays (LCDs) emerged, moving into prominence when the development of active matrix liquid crystal displays (AMLCDs) made the laptop computer a reality.

Now, the geography of display manufacturing and technology is changing, yielding a market in flux. The opportunities, meanwhile, are tremendous. According to market research firm Stanford Resources, Inc. (San Jose, CA), the global microdisplay market alone will reach $1.4 billion in unit sales by 2006, doubling its current value. In such a market, there is room for new technology.

Market on the move

For years, the LCD market has been dominated by Japanese manufacturers, who held nearly 72% market share as recently as 1998, but there is a sea change ahead. According to Barry Young, vice president of DisplaySearch, Inc. (Austin, TX), Korean manufacturers such as L.G. Philips (Seuol, Korea) and Samsung (Seuol, Korea) are claiming an aggregate market share of more than 31%, a number that is growing annually.

Taiwan also is lining up for a piece of the action, though its current market share is only about 15%. «Taiwan has made a lot of bold commitments and bold announcements about investing,» says David Mentley, senior vice president at Stanford Resources. «They’ve followed through for the most part, but it’s a pretty bad time to be coming into the market. Nobody’s happy right now because prices are really dropping.»

According to DisplaySearch predictions, by 2005 Taiwan’s market share will equal that of Japan’s at 33%, with Korea running close behind at 29%. The Japanese hegemony over LCD display production appears to be ending.

Getting small

The real story, though, lies in some of the newer microdisplay technologies that are now coming to market. Liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCoS) displays and organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays are disruptive technologies that have the potential to change a marketplace dominated by CRTs and LCDs. The primary market sectors for LCoS, a reflective technology, consist of projection displays and various near-eye virtual imaging devices, such as mobile Internet viewers or head-up displays that superimpose images over a scene. A neurosurgeon, for example, could view an MRI image of a patient’s brain while performing a delicate operation, or an aircraft mechanic could view plans or maintenance procedures while working on an airplane engine.

OLEDs, which are based on an emissive technology, are finding market potential as camcorder viewfinders, digital camera displays, and wireless phone displays. Eventually, OLED manufacturers hope to produce large-screen devices, or displays on flexible plastic substrates that might someday enable electronic newspapers, foldable electronic maps, or clothing with dynamic designs. Working with plastic substrates also opens up the possibility of web-based processing, which is enormously appealing from an economic point of view.

The market is poised for growth: According to Kim Allen of Stanford Resources, LCoS and OLED revenues are likely to reach $717 million by 2005, up from $2.6 million in 1999. The OLED wireless-phone display market alone should reach $40 million by 2005.

Attractive though it might be, the display industry in general is a challenge. «It’s a very capital-intensive business,» says Mentley. «The revenue per investment is quite poor, actually—for every dollar of capital investment the industry gets 80 cents in revenue. That’s not going to change much with a technology as complex as active matrix [LCoS and OLED displays].

Other contenders

The digital multimirror device (DMD) from Texas Instruments, Inc. (Plano, TX) focuses on the same markets as LCoS. The device incorporates an array of tiny microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) mirrors (pixels) that can tip to reflect incident light to the viewing screen or deflect it.

Field-emission displays (FEDs), which consist of arrays of tiny electron guns that excite phosphors into emission, offer impressive performance, but the issues of manufacturability and cost remain. «There’s a lot of uncertainty about manufacturing and long-term stability,» says Mentley.

The saga of FEDs shows how difficult it is to take a new technology from the labs to the market, Mentley notes. «There are a lot of things that need to be invented. It’s really hard for one or two companies to do that. With OLED displays the job isn’t any less large but there are lots of people involved.» He estimates that nearly 85 companies worldwide are involved in some level of the OLED effort.

Despite all of the activity on the research and development front, only two companies are actually shipping OLED products in volume. Passive matrix OLED displays from Pioneer (Tokyo, Japan) have appeared in cell phones from Motorola (Schaumberg, IL) and in car stereo displays, and TDK (Tokyo, Japan) has fielded a similar product.

Growth and change appear to be the twin hallmarks of the display industry. Some of the new technologies will make an impact, then fade into the shadows. Others appear to be well-positioned for the future. One thing is certain: In eight to ten years, the display industry—and your wireless phone, your television, and your desktop—will look very different.

(By Kristin Lewotsky, OEMagazine,  February, 2001)

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