Electronic Design

New Display Technologies Expand Possibilities As They Challenge CRTs

Product designers, with an eye toward the coming information explosion, are designing flat-panel displays with a multitude of applications. These include full-color automotive center-console displays, navigation and passenger entertainment units, medical monitors, Internet appliances, and consumer digital TV displays. As a result, market research firms such as Stanford Resources of San Jose, Calif., predict that the flat-panel display market will exceed $30 billion by 2004.

The cathode-ray tube (CRT), used in traditional television sets in its direct-view or front- or rear-projection form, is the incumbent technology. For a variety of applications, the liquid-crystal display (LCD), electroluminescent (EL) display, and plasma display panel (PDP) are flat-panel alternatives to the venerable CRT.

In the mid-1980s, LCDs enabled notebook PC applications with their low-power consumption and high-resolution images. But they aren't well-suited to all display applications. Since they depend on a backlight or ambient light for viewing characteristics, LCD viewing angles are limited.

There has been significant progress over the past few years to increase the LCD's viewing angle. Strides have been made using compensation films and unique structures like multi-domain vertically aligned (MVA) technology. Unfortunately, these solutions usually come at the expense of increased cost or reduced video response time.

LCDs use a liquid material that changes viscosity under severe environmental conditions. This fluid substance inhibits the widespread use of LCDs in automotive displays and other small graphic display applications. Complex structures and stringent processing environments also represent formidable yield challenges when LCDs are scaled to screen sizes over 25 in.

Thin-film inorganic EL displays, which have been commercialized for nearly 20 years, are used in applications such as medical patient-monitoring instruments and industrial process-control monitors. Their growth was traditionally impeded by the lack of full color, an inability to scale to larger screen sizes, and high costs.

To overcome these barriers, iFire Technology Inc. has developed a new type of hybrid inorganic EL device that combines simple thick-film and thin-film processes. The company's findings demonstrate that 16.7 million clear, crisp colors can be delivered on large substrates—and at lower costs than other competitive large-screen direct-view display technologies. These achievements are made possible by the simple solid-state structure of iFire's EL technology.

The resurgence of EL technology is demonstrated by partnerships for both OLED and inorganic EL suppliers. One example is TDK Corp. of Japan, a prominent consumer-electronics firm. TDK embarked on the flat-panel display manufacturing journey during late 1999. But instead of investing in expensive LCD and PDP facilities that cost more than $250 million, TDK selected organic and inorganic EL technologies for its portfolio.

TDK licensed the OLED technology from Kodak in 1999, and the thick-film inorganic EL technology in 2000. It was at this time that TDK and iFire Technology entered into a $25-million partnership for technology collaboration and the production of small graphic flat-panel displays. TDK intends to invest approximately $300 million for both OLED and inorganic EL technologies.

Partnerships like these should continue to validate fascinating new flat-panel display technologies and accelerate product development. The future looks thinner, brighter, and flat out exciting for all electronic-display technologies.

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