Electronic Design

Microdisplays: The End Of The Beginning

One year ago, I wrote a column on microdisplays that covered why they're important and what products they might soon impact. Since then, I've written a lot more columns on this hot technology. Now, however, it's time to go in a different direction. Looking more closely at the industry in general, I'm going to provide some of my predictions about the future.

I define microdisplays as transmissive, emissive, or reflective miniature displays that require magnification for proper viewing. That means the viewfinders in digital camcorders or in personal head-mounted display devices, as well as multimedia front projectors and rear-projection HDTVs.

Many companies' technologies compete in this space, including polysilicon liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), reflective liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCOS) displays, and Texas Instruments' digital-light-processing (DLP) subsystems. In the last year, some significant events really helped to propel the market for microdisplays forward.

The way I see it, this will continue over the next few years. During that time, microdisplay-based products will begin to replace many cathode-ray-tube-based ones. The fundamental concept behind microdisplays is that a miniature display is the lowest-cost solution to achieving a large, high-resolution image. That promise has not yet been fully realized, but some recent milestones are clearly moving the ball forward.

Take a peek at the largest market segment today, multimedia front-projection systems. Microdisplay-based solutions already dominate it. Last year saw the introduction of a new class of projector: the microportable. These sub-6-lb. units debuted with 1-chip DLP engines. Those features helped make them the fastest-growing part of the market. At Comdex last November, polysilicon manufacturers responded with their own versions of these products. Notably, Sony Electronics introduced a competitive product at a market opening price of $2699. This move, and a 2000-lumen offering from ViewSonic that costs $3000 less than its competitors, signals the beginning of a major price-reduction trend in this segment.

Other developments include the bundling of projectors to notebooks or video-conferencing equipment. There's also the thrust by InFocus Systems to make the conference-room projector as user-friendly as a network printer. All of these actions will drive acceptance, and therefore volumes and prices, for years to come.

In the rear-projection arena, the big news is the recent and imminent introductions of microdisplay-based products that will compete with cathode-ray-tube (CRT) rear-projection and plasma-display panels. JVC has a new 50-in. unit that's a stunning visual display, while Samsung will debut two models this spring. All of these are based upon LCOS engines. Other major consumer-electronics companies also are expected to introduce DLP-based HDTVs later this year.

The first rear-projection computer monitors in a "twenty-something" size range will likely debut as well. Look a few years further out, and it's easy to see digital cinema beginning to evolve into a microdisplay-industry driving force too.

In the virtual-display segment, Kopin turned the corner last year by starting to offer a microdisplay viewfinder in a mass-produced digital camcorder and still camera. For the camcorder, the display replaces a larger, more power-hungry CRT display. By operating without a larger LCD monitor display, the still camera's electronic viewfinder is able to save power and cost. Such displays supplied by Kopin, and probably Displaytech as well, are likely to influence the rapidly growing entry-level part of the digital still-camera market.

Let's not forget video headsets, either. A couple examples are the immersive entertainment ones for DVD viewing or the single eyepiece units for PC data viewing. While this market remains small so far, there remains significant potential. I suspect that this year will hold a breakthrough in either pricing or headset design that will start to capture the imagination of ordinary consumers. If the headsets catch on and people start buying them up, this could be a watershed event.

A few years further out, look for a slew of new high-bandwidth wireless devices as the third-generation (3G) infrastructure is implemented. Some of these products will incorporate microdisplays. One business model, for example, envisions a high-resolution eyepiece that plugs into a more traditional cell phone to allow viewing of Internet or other information-rich data. This would be part of a high-bandwidth upgrade package offered to cell-phone subscribers. This might work very well and could drive huge volumes.

While all of this sounds very rosy, there are still hurdles to overcome. Most notably, the manufacturing process must be improved in order to drive down costs. That will be one of the most important aspects of activities in the year 2000. All the industry needs is for one manufacturer to come up with a way to streamline the process, and others can follow that lead. Next year, I hope to report great progress in this area and the start of a broad assault of microdisplay-based products. To paraphrase Churchill, this may indeed be the "end of the beginning" for microdisplays.

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