Can The U.S. Put Its Screens In The Picture?

Despite Japan's worst recession in decades, Sharp Corp.'s Tenri plant is humming: Its production of 100,000 flat-panel screens a month is expected to double within a year. Hosiden Corp., which makes laptop screens for Apple Computer Inc. and cockpit displays for Boeing Co., is ramping up, too. So are NEC Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. No wonder. Advanced flat-panel displays--one of today's brightest optoelectronics products--will become even hotter once they're put into HDTVs, cars, and medical gear. That's great news for the Japanese, who have over 95% of a global market that is projected to grow 14% annually, to $9.4 billion by 2000.

The news might be good for America, too. From tiny Kopin Corp. to giant Xerox Corp., U.S. companies are developing new screen technologies. Motorola Inc. and partner In Focus Systems Inc. are building the first major U.S.-owned flat-panel display factory. And the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) has formed a display consortium that includes American Telephone & Telegraph, Xerox, and eight others. "High-definition displays are the windows into the Information Age," says Lance Glasser, director of ARPA's Electronic Systems Technology Office. "We're determined to get the U.S. back into high-definition displays."

NIGHTMARE. America's hopes depend on out-innovating the Japanese. They've invested $3 billion in the leading technology--active-matrix liquid-crystal displays. But making these is fiendishly difficult. Liquid crystal acts as a shutter that blocks or allows light from the back panel to pass through and darken or lighten each dot, or pixel, on the screen. A transistor at each pixel activates the crystal shutter. High-resolution color screens can have a million or more pixels--thus the production nightmare. Only recently have yields of defect-free screens climbed above 60%. Moreover, Japan's display makers haven't fashioned screens larger than 20 inches diagonally or dropped the price much below $1,500.

So the door is ajar for U.S. producers. In Focus has a way to make high-resolution LCDs that don't need a transistor at each pixel--thus slashing manufacturing costs and boosting yields past 90%. The Wilsonville (Ore.) factory should be cranking out six-inch screens for handheld devices by early 1994, says In Focus Chairman Steven R. Hix, "and Motorola is pushing like mad to get up to 12 inches."

Other U.S. innovators are aiming for screens that take over some computer functions--a key to miniaturization. David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, N.J., has made four-by-eight-inch prototypes of such a "smart" LCD. And in Taunton, Mass., Kopin mounts high-speed computer-chip circuitry on a display's glass. Kopin's displays will be used in projection-TV systems and tiny screens in military goggles for simulations, guiding weapons, or viewing data.

Very big screens, by contrast, may require abandoning LCDs. Screens in which each pixel produces its own light "are much crisper and more pleasing to the eye than backlit liquid-crystal displays," says James A. Ionson, research vice-president for Polaroid Corp. In plasma displays, for instance, a current induces a gas at each pixel to shine. These are easier and cheaper to make, says Peter S. Friedman, president of screenmaker Photonics Imaging in Northwood, Ohio. "Active-matrix doesn't have a prayer of catching up," he adds. Chipmaker Micron Technology Inc. in Boise, Idaho, is trying another approach--field-emitter displays that use thousands of arrays of electron beams to light up the phosphor coatings in a screen. One advantage of this technology is that viewers won't discern the failure of a few microscopic field emitters. That's also true for screens using clusters of either light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or miniature lasers to light each pixel. Once researchers can make screens with a palette of colors bright enough for use in daylight, "these displays will take over the flat-panel market," predicts physicist Jan F. Schetzina of North Carolina State University.

The next question is whether U.S. lab breakthroughs can become commercial successes. The Japanese are also working on advanced plasma displays and laser screens. Given Japan's huge investment, manufacturing skills, and enormous lead, says consultant Lawrence E. Tannas Jr., president of Tannas Electronics in Orange, Calif., it will take the U.S. at least a decade to get back in the race. Only then might anyone know who will offer the clearest windows into the Information Age.

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