Electronic Design

Microdisplay Industry Close To Igniting

The fledgling microdisplay industry got a big boost last month from a declaration by display heavyweight Philips Flat Display Systems. The company, based in San Jose, Calif., announced its plans to produce liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCOS) displays and projection products. On top of that, four other vendors signaled that volume production will be ramping up this spring. This milestone has been eagerly awaited for years. It could set the stage for a major shift in the dynamics of the microdisplay industry.

What Philips has announced is a codevelopment agreement with Hana MicroDisplay Technologies Inc. (HMTI), Twinsburg, Ohio. Six different LCOS displays are on Philips' roadmap. The first, a 0.97-in. XGA 1024-by-768 panel, is now sampling to customers. Philips-branded and OEM-branded projection products are coming, too. Given the company's show of determination to see this technology succeed, this formal entry bodes well.

Philips FDS is part of Philips Components, a division of Royal Philips Electronics of The Netherlands. HMTI is a branch of Hana Microelectronics, a Thai-based electronics contract manufacturer that entered the microdisplay business last summer by purchasing the assets and facilities of S-Vision.

The decision to establish its LCOS facility as a merchant fab means that HMTI will make LCOS displays for a number of potential customers in much the same way that silicon foundries can serve many customers. The company also announced its first supplier agreement last month. Colorado MicroDisplay (CMD), Boulder, Colo., has decided that HMTI has passed its manufacturing qualification tests. Production can begin in March on its SVGA 800-by-600 displays.

These 0.47-in. miniature flat panels will be used in headsets for DVD players, wearable computers, and other near-to-eye products. CMD says that it's working with over 25 OEMs. Reaching a production point, then, will help initiate a flood of new products.

In parallel, the deadline is this summer for the LCOS displays in headsets from MicroDisplay Corp., San Pablo, Calif. That company recently received a $6 million investment and production order from Daeyang E&C, Seoul, Korea. Daeyang used last month's CeBIT show in Germany to debut its latest twin-SVGA headset. That device is designed to interface to portable DVD players.

So far, most headsets with this purpose have used microdisplays made with a high-temperature polysilicon process. For example, Sony Electronics, Park Ridge, N.J., had developed an SVGA headset as an upscale version of the NTSC-grade Glasstron product. But it sold for over $2000. Poor sales have evidently forced the company to now discontinue that grade of headsets, although the NTSC-grade products will continue to be offered.

Sales in that area might be boosted by Daeyang, which says that it can bring its SVGA headset to market for less than $900. That's still pricey, but cheap enough to raise sales. Daeyang's headset may well become the replacement to the Sony unit. Did Sony see the writing on the wall?

LCOS displays with lower resolution, like the QVGA 320 by 240, are making inroads in the camcorder and digital still-camera markets. There, they function as electronic viewfinders. Kopin Corp., Taunton, Mass., began shipping its QVGA microdisplays last summer. Now its customers are Japan-based JVC and Matsushita, as well as Taiwan-based Mustek. These and perhaps some others apparently like what they're getting. The company has now revealed that it will double production from 100,000 to 200,000 displays per month by this summer.

Pre-production shipments of SVGA LCOS displays have begun at Three-Five Systems, Tempe, Ariz. They're being sent to partner InViso, Sunnyvale, Calif. That company is developing handheld Internet appliances for access to web and desktop information.

In the projection space, Philips intends to become a major player by both selling LCOS displays to other product developers and building its own projection products. The initial product that it will bring to market will be a rear-projection desktop monitor with UXGA 1600-by-1200 resolution. A prototype of this monitor should be ready this summer, with production possible by early 2001.

Also in the company's display product plans for this year are a 0.97-in. SXGA 1280-by-1024 display. All of these displays are intended for projection systems that require three panels: one each to modulate the red, blue, and green light in separate channels. They're then recombined to produce a full color image.

In 2001, Philips plans to have a 1.1-in. WUXGA 1900-by-1200 panel that will suit one-panel projection systems. Such systems will be smaller and less expensive.

All of these developments occurred in a single month—February. January was almost as busy, as developers of rear-projection HDTVs revealed their plans for the year at the Consumer Electronics Show. Not surprisingly, LCOS-based systems will begin to arrive this year. So will competitive systems using another reflective technology—digital light processing—from Texas Instruments, Dallas, Texas.

It's becoming clear that LCOS microdisplay technology will emerge as a major force in a host of new products. While it's been talked about for months and years, now the pieces are coming into place that will enable LCOS to impact the market this year and next. Stay tuned.

TAGS: Components
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