Category: The Front Line

“The Only Disruptive Technology at Display Week”

At SID Display Week, in an aisle on the show floor, I had a brief conversation with Candice Brown-Elliott, Nouvoyance CEO and creator of the Pentile Matrix pixel configuration widely used in Samsung OLED displays. She said that micro LED was the only disruptive technology she saw at Display Week. In addition to being a trusted colleague, Brown-Elliott has the rare gift of being both an insightful technical visionary and an effective engineer who doesn’t mind getting her knuckles scraped and her fingernails dirty. When Brown-Elliott says a technology is disruptive, I pay attention.

Just as remarkable as this technology’s potentially transformative nature is that micro LEDs (or microscale LEDs or µ-ILEDs) were not well known outside the relatively small community of people who work on them before Apple acquired LuxVue last year, at which point a much wider community started scrambling to learn about them.

Clearly, it would be very attractive to make phone, tablet, and TV displays from inorganic LEDs, but there has been no inexpensive way to assemble LED chips into RGB arrays of the appropriate density. If it were possible, such displays could be several times as efficient as OLEDs and have longer lifetimes.

So, the room was crowded when John Rogers — a professor at the University of Illinois and co-founder of and technology advisor to X-Celeprint — presented a Monday seminar entitled “Microscale LEDs for Multifunctional Display Systems.” What Rogers and his colleagues, along with a handful of other micro-LED companies, have learned to do is is initiate the epitaxial growth of AlInGaP LEDs on recyclable GaAs wafers. Rogers described a process for making multiple layers of LEDs with sacrificial layers in between that allow the layers to be lifted off That’s impressive but it solves only half the problem. If we went no farther, we could no more than make expensive wafer-sized displays.

Multilayer epitaxial lift-off  (Graphic:  John Rogers)

Multilayer epitaxial lift-off (Graphic: John Rogers)

The second part of the solution was covered by Chris Bower, CTO of X-Celeprint (Cork, Ireland), who described the company’s technology for performing transfer printing of the chips using elastomeric stamps utilizing peel-rate-dependent adhesion. To oversimplify shamelessly, if you place the stamp on the layer of chips and peel it off quickly the chips adhere to the stamp. Impress the stamp on the target substrate and peel it off slowly, the chips adhere to the target. This is also impressive, but it still doesn’t created LED arrays any larger than the original lattice-matched array.

As it turns out, it is relatively simple to impose patterns on the stamps that result in picking up every 10th, 20th, or nth LED before depositing them on the substrate. In this way, you can go from the dense array of the original wafer to a sparse array on the target substrate. In principal, this allows you to make µ-ILED displays of virtually any diagonal. Bower said that X-Celeprint has made 150-mm stamps. Making larger ones is just a matter of engineering, he said, not science.

Now, is it obvious to that if you can transfer-print u-iLEDs you can also transfer-print CMOS switching circuits and no longer worry about the instability issues of a-Si and IGZO TFTs or the scalability issues of LTPS? Well, even if it’s not obvious, Rogers discussed it in his seminar. In fact, you can transfer print many kinds of “chiplets,” and even assemble them in three-dimensional structures. Displays are only one application of the technology.

The first µ-ILED display we see in a commercial product may very well come from LuxVue and appear in an Apple iWatch next year.

Looking farther forward, is it possible that µ-ILED, not OLED, will become the universal display that replaces LCD? All of us in the display community should be thinking about that question, and thinking hard.

How Sharp Makes Its “Free-form” Displays

For some time Sharp has been showing examples of its “free-form” displays, which do both the “row” and “column” driving through the same edge of the display, leaving the rest of the display to be cut in curves or other unusual shapes. But Sharp had not been willing to describe in detail how it distributed the gate drivers throughout the display so that no conventional row drivers mounted on a vertical display edge are necessary.

At the most recent SID Display Week held in San Jose in early June, that changed. In the Sharp booth, Automotive Marketing Director for Display Products Thomas Spears did his best to explain the innovation, but it was hard for him to do so in any detail amidst the cut and thrust on the show floor. More detail was available from the invited paper by Hidefumi Yoshida and 13 colleagues from Sharp in Nara, Japan. The paper, “flexible Flat-Panel Display Designs with Gate Driver Circuits Integrated within the Pixel Area,” described Sharp’s truly clever approach.

Yoshida and friends began with a well-known technology, gate driver monolithic circuitry (GDM). With GDM, the shift registers and output transistors of the gate drivers are deposited on the vertical edge of the display at the same time as the switching transistors are fabricated. This is an alternative to the more conventional approach of using ICs for the gate driver circuitry. Since GDM circuitry can occupy significant real estate on the vertical edge of the display, especially when implemented in amorphous silicon, it requires a wide bezel, which is not compatible with current display preferences or with gracefully curved display contours.

Here’s where Sharp’s cleverness comes into play.

At SID Display Week, Sharp showed this

At SID Display Week, Sharp showed this “free-form” LCD with curved corners and very thin bezel. (Photo: Ken Werner)

First, instead of putting the GDM circuitry on the vertical edge(s) of the display, Sharp locates it in one or more vertical “bands” within the display area. I’ve put “bands” in quotes because Sharp has done far more than simply shifting the left-edge circuitry into the image area as a block (which would create dead areas within the display). Sharp also disperses the transistors of the GDM circuitry so individual transistors are located at iseparate pixel locations and interconnected via additional surface connections and a large number of through holes. Thus, the gate driver control signals enter through the bottom edge of the display, which is also where the source drive ICs are located. The gate signals travel from the dispersed GDM circuits horizontally to pixels, but entirely within the image area. This allows the left, right, and top edges of the display to have very thin bezels, which can be shaped with great freedom. Sharp has shown a triple-curve display that is appropriate for the tachometer, speedometer, and combined temperature/gas gauge in a primary automotive instrument display.

This is a significant innovation in display architecture that is, as Yoshida et al. carefully note, just as applicable to OLED displays as to LCDs. Sharp’s Thomas Spears said there was very significant interest in the displays from automobile manufacturers, and that Sharp was seriously engaged with all of them. We will see these displays in (or as) auto instrument clusters but, given automobile design cycles, probably not until 2017.

The Wires Remain The Same. Only the Format Has Been Changed (to Confuse the Innocent)

For the longest time, the pro AV industry was characterized by proprietary cabling formats: One piece of coax with BNCs (or yellow RCA plugs) for composite video. A 15-pin DB9 connector for VGA. DIN connectors for S-video. And RJ-45 plugs for twisted-pair analog signal extenders.

With the advent of digital signal interfacing, we’ve got a slew of new connectors that look nothing like their predecessors: The 19-pin HDMI plug. The 20-pin DisplayPort plug. Micro USB. Type-C USB. DVI. And RJ-45 plugs for twisted-pair digital signal extenders.

Wait – what? We’re still using RJ-45 plugs, and category wire? Apparently, and we’ve now migrated to the more robust category 6 wire (rated for 1GigE connections); more often than not equipped with shielding to minimize crosstalk and ground wires for longer signal transmission distances.

The thing is; we’re now facing a new set of challenges in the way we multiplex and transport video, audio, RS232, IR, USB, metadata, and even power. One camp advocates for using a proprietary system (HDBaseT) that currently has a practical limit of about 330 feet and is still limited to supporting the older HDMI 1.4 standard. But it transports uncompressed signals and is very popular in the InfoComm world.

The other camp is advocating that we compress and convert all video/audio/data to packets and transmit them with IP headers through conventional networks. This method increases transmission distance considerably and can run over copper or optical fiber (or even coax, for that matter), through conventional, open-system network switches. This approach is favored by telecom companies, along with broadcast networks, IPTV services, and other multichannel video system operators.

Now, another camp says that they’ve developed a “better mousetrap” for doing AV-over-IP, using a low-latency protocol known as BlueRiver NT that uses light compression on video and audio.

Logos Combined July 2015 CROP 1024So which is the way to go? That’s not an easy question to answer, but the most common approach to transmitting digital video and audio over long distances is solution #2, using MPEG compression and standard IP protocols to transport video and audio through everyday networks and switches.

What’s more; it’s likely to stay that way. While the HDBaseT format works very well, it is based on a proprietary pulse-amplitude modulation (PAM) scheme that requires chipsets manufactured by Valens Semiconductor. And there is that distance limitation, although support for optical fiber is now in the standard. But you can’t run HDBaseT signals through conventional network switches.

The BlueRiver NT approach (designed by AptoVision) claims to improve on conventional AV-over-IP transmission while retaining low latency with Adaptive Clock Re-synchronization. This technique interleaves audio, video, 1GB Ethernet and other signals with an embedded clocking mechanism.

According to AptoVision, this approach recovers the clocks for both audio and video at the decoder end with only a few lines of latency while remaining fully synched to the source clock across the entire network; even through switches. The light compression cranks down data rates by 50% with a “lossless” two-step codec.

While you can run BlueRiver NT-coded video and audio through conventional IP networks and switches, you must use their proprietary codec in transmitters and receivers. So it’s not a true “open” system, although it is more flexible than HDBaseT for installation in a network environment.

So, back to conventional AV-over-IP, which (come to think of it) isn’t really that “conventional” nowadays. Thanks to the new HEVC H.265 codec and a series of real-time protocols, it’s now possible to stream 1080p content with conventional IP headers through any network and switch and decode it with any H.265-compatible device, like a set-top box or media player, or even a new Ultra HDTV.

And your 1080p content can travel through networks at speeds as slow as 1 to 2 megabits per second, yet still yield good image quality when decoded. Compare that to the current 6 – 10 Mb/s requirement for 1080p/60 using H.264 AVC coding, and you’re seeing quite an improvement.

H.265 decoder chips are now widely available from Broadcom, which means that a whole host of displays and media players can be used to decode AV-over-IP signals – you aren’t stuck with a proprietary system. What’s more, AV-over-IP systems aren’t restricted by bandwidth in their transmitters and receivers. If the network can handle 1 Gb/s of data, so be it. And if you are fortunate enough to tie into a 10GigE network with optical fiber, the sky’s the limit!

Now, none of what I just wrote says these systems can’t co-exist. It may make sense to use HDBaseT extenders (or BlueRiver NT versions) to connect from a decoder to distant displays. Or, the input of an encoder could be fed by an HDBaseT / BlueRiver receiver.

The advantage of a 100% AV-over-IP system is that it nicely sidesteps the current speed limit problems we’re experiencing with HDMI, and to a lesser extent, DisplayPort. We’ve reduced the video and audio signals to a baseband format and compressed them into packets, which can travel through ANY manufacturer’s IP switching and routing gear.

Best of all, the addressing is done in software with IP addresses, which helps manage the size of the switch and ensures it is always easily scalable. If you didn’t specify enough inputs and outputs on a matrix switch for HDMI, you’ve got a problem! But if you need to connect more displays through an AV-over-IP system, you just need more IP addresses.

In the near future, you can count on hearing plenty of debates about which of these formats is “the way to go” for digital signal distribution. HDBaseT is widely entrenched in the commercial AV world (and to some extent, in home theater). But it’s not popular with IT-savvy users, where conventional MPEG/AES and IP headers rule the day.

And it remains to be seen how much traction BlueRiver NT can gain in the pro AV space. Some manufacturers are already supporting this format as a better way to do AV-over-IP than H.265. Latency issues with any video codec are largely a result of both compression and forward error correction, and we’re still in the early stages of H.265 adoption. So it’s a little too early to pick winners and losers here.

Frankly; if I was designing a high-performance video network, I’d use 100% optical fiber cabling and H.265/IP to get the job done, running everything through 1GigE or (if the budget permitted) 10GigE switches and using fiber-to-“whatever” receivers/converters at all terminations.

That would essentially guarantee future-proofing of the installation, as all I’d need to do to connect an upgraded interface would be to swap out a plug-in card or install a low-cost black box as needed.

But that’s just me…

The Dog Days of Summer…and UHDTV

Ahhh, summertime: When everyone’s thoughts turn to cookouts, the beach, ice cream, baseball games, driving with the top down (or moon roof open), miniature golf – I could go on, but you get the idea.

One of the things most people are NOT thinking about is buying a new TV. Sure, there’s plenty to watch, but most of us would rather be outside in the nice weather. (Kayaking is my thing this time of year).

Even so, prices continue to drop across the board on all screen sizes, even on UHDTVs. Consider HH Gregg’s flier from last Sunday, where Sharp is now advertising its new line-up of discounted Ultra HDTVs for some eye-popping prices. How about $600 for the 43-inch LC43UB30 “smart” TV? Or $800 for the 50-inch LC50UB30? Both of those prices represent $200 discounts off full retail, which was already low.

There’s even a 55-inch model, the LC50UB30, for a grand. That’s Vizio territory when it comes to pricing and shows you how determined Sharp is to get back in the TV game and recapture some of the old magic from a decade ago.

Even the newest technologies are being discounted. Samsung’s HDR-ready S-series of UHDTVs are seeing substantial price cuts, with the 55-inch UN55JS8500 trimmed by $1,000 to $1998 and the 65-inch UH65JS8500 marked down to $2998. Curved models have seen an even bigger cut of $1500 off full book (UN55JS9000 is $2498 and UN65JS9000 is $3498).

Even LG’s new OLED TVs aren’t immune. The company ran a week-long promotion earlier this month with substantial discounts. The 55EG9600 was dropped to $5,500 from $6,000, while the 65EG9600 saw its price cut by a whopping $2,000 from $9,000 to $7,000.

How low can you go?

How low can you go?

And back around the 4th of July, their older 55EC9300 1080p OLED TV saw a price drop to $2,300. That price has since risen back to $2,500, which is quite a discount from when it first came out two years ago and was tagged at $15,000!

Don’t need a UHD set yet? Haier would be happy if you bought one of their new 50E3500 50-inch 1080p LCD TVs, and it will only set you back $370.00 – which works out to an amazing $7.40 per diagonal inch, a new low for LCD TVs. If 50 inches isn’t big enough, Haier’s got a 55-inch model (55E3500) for $400, which is almost as good a deal.

Given the number of UHDTVs that are now priced at or below $1,000, you can expect the shift from 1080p to 4K in larger TV screen sizes to accelerate. I had figured we’d see the majority of TVs 50 inches and larger move to 2160p resolution by the end of 2017. Now, I’m beginning to think it will happen even faster – maybe by the 4th quarter of next year.

Either way, there’s no question that your next TV purchase will bring you a lot more bang for the buck. With 43 inches now the most popular screen size, you’ll be able to buy two 1080p models at a time for what one cost a year ago. And the way things are trending, you may want to consider making the move to 4K if you are upgrading over the holidays.

For now, you can just enjoy swinging in your hammock with a nice cool glass of lemonade while the birds chirp, the bees buzz, and July turns into August. There will be plenty of time to ruminate on the features sets of new TVs this fall…

Sharp Makes a Big Play for Ultra HDTV

Last Wednesday, Sharp held a TV showcase in Lower Manhattan and showed that they’re still committed to the North American television market. Said commitment came in the form of nine models of Ultra HD (3840×2160) sets, ranging in size from 43 inches to a wall-sized 80-inch model.

Some background is useful before I proceed. Nine years ago, Sharp was the #1 retailer of LCD TVs in the world, commanding a 21% market share and leaving Korean competitors LG and Samsung eating their dust.

But time changes everything. Since then, Sharp’s WW market share has steadily declined to the point that the brand is usually classified with “other” when analysts release their quarterly and annual rankings for shipments and revenue share. Part of that is due to the guerilla marketing and sales strategies employed by both Samsung and LG: The first company remains comfortably in 1st place with a 27% market share, while LG is a distant 2nd with 15%.

Many of the once-famous Japanese brands have fallen by the wayside since then. Hitachi abandoned the U.S. TV market several years ago, and Mitsubishi had no choice but to get out as its rear-projection designs fell out of favor. Toshiba announced last year it would retreat to Japan, and Panasonic seems to have shifted its corporate focus to more profitable commercial products and solutions. (How many Panasonic TVs have you seen in stores lately?)

That leaves Sony and Sharp, and I’ve documented in great detail the former’s legendary missteps with consumer products and televisions. Indeed; Sony still has an 8 % WW revenue share in TV, but that number has been in slow decline for some time and the red ink continues to pile up in Sony’s TV (and mobile phone) business units.

So, back to Sharp. Unlike other Japanese brands, Sharp stands alone in having a completely vertically-integrated TV business: They manufacture the LCD panels at their world’s-largest Gen 10 facility in Sakai, Japan. They were the first company to master high yields on the all-important faster and energy-efficient IGZO TFT technology, which is used widely on their TVs. And they can still make larger cuts of LCD glass cheaper than anyone else – for now.

But Sharp has had a bad stretch of fiscal years, losing over a billion dollars just a few years ago and almost going bankrupt. Their lender banks are getting weary of issuing IOUs and even the assistance of both Qualcomm and Samsung were needed a couple of years ago to keep the doors open. (Both companies are now minority owners.)

The Gen 10 Sakai fab itself is nearly half-owned by Hon Hai Precision Industries, owners of Foxcon and manufacturers of Apple’s iStuff. And the chairman of Hon Hai, Terry Gou, wants to put more of his money into Sharp, but wants a seat on the board – something that is being met with less than enthusiasm in Osaka.

There are nine new Ultra HDTVs in the Sharp line now, ranging from 43 inches to 80 inches.

There are nine new Ultra HDTVs in the Sharp line now, ranging from 43 inches to 80 inches.

The company really is at a crossroads with respect to their consumer TV business. Sharp has been around for so long in the U.S. that some readers may remember owning a Sharp LCD calculator, or fax machine. And the brand has a perception of being “old school” and stodgy. (Witness their use of Baby Boomer idol George Takei, famous for his role in the 1960s TV series Star Trek, to promote the company’s Quattron technology a few years back.)

Unlike Samsung and LG, Sharp doesn’t have a presence in tablets, and is a very minor player in smartphones. Sharp also sold lots of appliances back in the day, but not that long ago a sales associate for a major brick-and-mortar chain located near me said, “No one comes in asking for Sharp products anymore.”

Nevertheless, the company continues to push forward. They made a bold but perhaps wise move in bringing back industry veteran Peter Weedfald to try and shake things up. Weedfald is now senior VP for sales, and he’s got quite an obstacle course in front of him to return the company to a competitive position.

The new Ultra HDTVs may help, if Weedfald is successful in generating “buzz” about them. There are three series: The Aquos UB30 sets are value-priced Ultra HD models, and include 43” (42.5” diagonal), 50” (49.6” diagonal), 55” (54.6” diagonal) and 65” (64.5” diagonal) Class screen sizes, with the 43” and 50” offerings priced at $799.99 and $999.99, respectively. The 55” model will retail for $1,299.99 and the 65-inch version will be ticketed at $2,399.99.

All Ultra HD sets support HEVC H.265 and VP9 decoding for streaming 4K (Netflix, anyone?).

All Ultra HD sets support HEVC H.265 and VP9 decoding for streaming 4K (Netflix, anyone?).

 

Sharp has adopted the Android OS for its new line of Ultra HDTVs.

Sharp has adopted the Android OS for its new line of Ultra HDTVs.

All four models support 4K streaming and have built-in HEVC H.265 and VP9 codecs and Sharp’s Revelation 4K upscaling engine. HDMI 2.0 inputs with HDCP 2.2 are also standard, although I couldn’t tell how many. Stepping up one level finds the UH30 series of Ultra HDTVs. The UE30 series includes models in 60” (diagonal.), 70” (69.5” diagonal) and 80” diagonal screen sizes. MSRPs are $2,099.99, $2,899.99, and $5,599.99, respectively.

These models also come with HEVC / VP9 streaming support and Revelation upscaling, and the press release states that “…Easy connectivity is at your fingertips in both the UH30 and UE30 series with four HDMI® inputs equipped with the latest 4K specs.” That would seem to indicate four HDMI 2.0 input ports, which may be more than any other manufacturer at present.

The top-line models (UH series) are the 70-inch LC-70UH30U ($3,299.99) and 80-inch LC-80UH30U ($6,299.99) and include all the bells and whistles of the UB and UE series TVs, plus something Sharp calls SPECTROS Rich Color Display. This is a color-enhanced image that also shows some signs of supporting high dynamic range (HDR) content, but it’s not using quantum dots. Nor is it firing additional adjacent sets of color pixels to improve saturation, something Sharp called “3K” at CES 2013.

There is a marked improvement in color quality from a conventional TV to one equipped with SPECTROS. And with Samsung, LG, Sony, and others showing quantum dot-equipped Ultra HDTVs, Sharp had to offer something to keep up with the Joneses.

A conventional Sharp LCD TV is on the left, and a new UH model with SPECTROS color rendering is on the right. This photo doesn't do it justice, but the increase in color saturation is quite noticeable.

A conventional Sharp LCD TV is on the left, and a new UH model with SPECTROS color rendering is on the right. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but the increase in color saturation is quite noticeable.

All of the UE and UH-series TVs also support Android TV, unlike Samsung’s Tizen and LG’s Web OS. That means you have a search engine that is similar to Google on your smartphone or tablet in operation. We tried it out to locate programs as well as the score of the Yankees afternoon game, but weren’t as successful with other searches through the voice-activated remote.

There you have it. Sharp certainly has the know-how and supply chain to build and market the latest in TV technology, and their build quality has always stood up well to any other manufacturer. Given the rapid fall in TV prices, it might even be prudent for Sharp to abandon the 1080p TV market and toss all of their eggs into Ultra HD going forward, where I think they’d have a much easier time carving out a niche.

After all, it’s not like the company doesn’t have any experience with ultra-high resolution imaging. They’ve shown an 85-inch 8K TV for several years now at CES, and the NHK 8K broadcasts in Japan make extensive use of Sharp displays – all the way down to a 13-inch 8K OLED TV, shown at the NAB expo back in April.

Now, they just need to get some “buzz” going….