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The Next Picture Show
I Am Waiting

WK Bohannon

January, 2001 | When I look at all the hot stuff playing on my screens, which is generated from lamp light shining through transmissive LCDs, I can't help but wonder where the next picture show will come from. LCDs used to be hyped as "poly-silicon" by the marketing types, but poly-silicon hardly even warrants discussion anymore. Then again, that is probably because it's so pervasive. Except for some of Texas Instruments' digital micro-mirror devices (DMD) in the smallest projectors, poly-silicon LCDs pretty much rule the full-sized projecting world–at least up to 4,000 lumens or so. Super projectors–those making over 5,000 lumens and up to 10 or 12 thousand lumens–almost exclusively use TI's DMDs. And that's the way it's going to stay, right? Well, nothing else stays the same, so why should projection be any different?

People make projectors out of three transparent, poly-silicon LCDs, one each for the red, green, and blue color channels, because it's easy to do so. Sure, the new crop of tiny, feature-challenged three-pound projectors (which are just beginning to ship) are based upon one of TI's DMD chips, but what a busy little imager they possess. One DMD has to do the work of three LCDs and that causes it to buzz rapidly, in sync with a madly whining color wheel to make a weakly colored picture show.

Demanding audiences need the color saturation and performance that only three separate color channels can provide, and this has hindered TI in the market. Sure, people make big, super projectors out of three of TI's DMDs–but they have to because it takes something made of metal, strapped to a huge heat sink, to survive the rigors of a lamp putting out way over 1,000 watts.

It appears that poly-silicon has succeeded so well that Epson and Sony haven't been able keep up with the demand for the LCD components either. Those two companies account for most of the world's production of LCDs used in projectors–so pray that nothing happens to their factories. TI would like to be able to step into the supply-and-demand gap and sell more DMDs, but it has often struggled to meet its existing customers' demands, too. Plus, one DMD chip can't really produce the same kind of well-saturated colors that three LCDs can. But I don't want to argue that point here. I want to know who's going to project the next picture show if poly-silicon can't.

If the LCD industry can't meet the demand for compact and colorful three-chip imagers, who can? Some people think that "reflective" LCDs made on "normal" silicon wafers (a technology called LCOS for liquid crystal on silicon) can take over from the other technologies. And why not? The world's IC factories currently produce an enormous amount of memory, processors, game controllers, and you-name-it electronics, all on cheap silicon wafers. Transmissive, poly-silicon LCDs are produced in only a few special factories using clear, transmissive, and expensive quartz glass substrates with specialized processes. Therefore, it makes sense that if you could make an LCD using the same factory, materials, and processes as are used to make cheap ICs, then LCD projectors would become cheap and plentiful too–just like Game Boy, Nintendo, and cell phones.

Would LCOS work? Reflective LCDs have tried several times to make a dent in the electronic projection market, and outside of a few limited successes such as JVC's D-ILA technology, cheap LCOS hasn't made it yet–and may never make it. Four years ago, several reflective LCOS projectors actually entered the INFOCOMM shoot-out, but they looked poor in comparison to transmissive LCD projectors, and they never took off in the market. Production of improved LCOS prototypes shown at INFOCOMM this year has been delayed again–supposedly until the spring. I'm not giving up hope for the LCOS guys, but I'm from Kansas and that means that I'm more of a skeptic than those kind people from Missouri. I'm not going to believe the hype until I can hold a good, cheap LCOS projector in my hands.

One reason for the delay is that, while it is relatively easy to make an IC on silicon, it is a lot harder to then turn that IC on silicon into a reflective LCD with adequate optical performance. It was those problems that shot the LCOS guys down before. If you don't believe me, ask the folks at Pioneer–they tried hard. JVC succeeded because it is using the LC technology that was developed at Hughes Aircraft for government projectors. JVC's LCOS technology is different than the standard LCOS and very well patented, so the rest of the pack has to hunt elsewhere and the results are there for all to see on the big screen. And then there is the basic–erroneous–assumption around LCOS: namely, that there's lots of IC production capacity lying fallow.

However, judging from the current IC supply-and-demand problems ranging from memory and cell phones to PlayStation 2 chips, I'd say that the world's fabs are pretty much running at capacity. Unless someone wants to plunk down huge dollars in a factory face-off against the transmissive LCD industry, I'd say that there are no easy solutions. LCOS needs to compete with other products for the very busy fabs and then it has to compete with transmissive LCD projectors in the market. I still expect to see a few LCOS parts trying valiantly to make a dent in the market next spring, but barring any miracles, I'd say your next picture show will still probably be done with transmissive, poly-silicon LCDs.

WK Bohannon (manxrsrch@aol.com), founder of Manx Research, an independent evaluator of projection and display systems, has more than 25 years of experience in high-tech industries in areas from nuclear spectroscopy to high-energy laser systems and artificial intelligence. He has worked as chief scientist for Display Products at Proxima Corporation from 1989 to 1994, and lived through the birth of today's small electronic presentations systems.

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