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Meet Silicon Valley's New Screen Hopeful

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Charles "Capp" Spindt is living proof that if you build a better mousetrap, the world may not beat a path to your door. For 30 years, the scientist at SRI International has been developing an innovative technology for fashioning flat television and computer screens. Flat panels are a cornerstone for future technologies, but Spindt couldn't raise the money to build a prototype. "Until Mickey Mouse is running across the screen in full color, we can't sell the idea," he says.

Now, Spindt's persistence may be rewarded. On Jan. 17, chipmaker Micron Technology Inc. bought a small stake in Coloray Display Corp., a private Fremont (Calif.) company set up in 1989 to commercialize Spindt's technology. Neither company will say how much Micron paid, though insiders say it wasn't much. Coloray has been struggling to survive lately, after unsuccessful attempts to win funding. Last year, says Chief Executive Charles F. Antony, it lost much of its top technical talent. The Micron stake brightens the outlook: "We can finally get this thing out of the lab and into the market," Antony says.

Micron is just one of the companies homing in on the "field-emitter" approach (diagram). Japanese companies such as NEC Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. have researchers working on the idea. Raytheon Co. is developing superbright displays for fighter-plane cockpits and has been exploring a manufacturing deal with Micron. More than 20 U.S. companies plan to meet on Jan. 28 to discuss a joint effort in the technology.

SHARP PICTURE. Much of the excitement began with demonstrations by French scientists of a 6-inch by 6-inch, black-and-white field-emitter screen capable of showing movies. Corporate researchers like the prospect that the screens could be cheaper than other approaches.

Spindt's field-emitter technology basically is an exotic offshoot of the conventional cathode ray tube (CRT) used in ordinary TVs. Inside a CRT screen, cathodes shoot beams of electrons back and forth across the screen. When the beams hit a phosphor coating on the back of the screen, they cause the material to glow, creating the picture. Field-emitter displays also rely on stimulating phosphor with electrons. But they have thousands of tiny cathodes mounted behind every point on the screen--more than 10 million cathodes per square inch. As a result, a panel three millimeters thick can produce a picture as sharp as a CRT.

The technology may even be better than the current contender for the flat panel of the future, active-matrix liquid-crystal displays. Japanese companies have invested billions of dollars in high-tech factories to make these devices, already used in notebook computers. But active-matrix pictures are hard to see from an angle and are still very costly.

Those problems could turn field emission into a leapfrog technology, and Micron wants to benefit from the leap. The effort could take years and cost millions. With annual revenues of about $425 million, Micron may not have a lot to put into the project.

Then again, it has a history of doing what others say is impossible. It is the only profitable supplier of bulk memory chips in the U.S.--rivals handed that job to Japan years ago. Combining Micron's semiconductor manufacturing plants with Coloray's and Spindt's patents may be what's needed to bring Mickey Mouse to life on the sliver-thin screen.John Carey in Washington, with Robert D. Hof in San Francisco

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