Flat-screen chaos 

27 Mar 2007 0 tbs.pm/2141 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

You’d think the headlong rush to acquire large flat-screen TVs – that cost more to run, have a larger carbon footprint, and give a poorer picture than the CRT-based sets they replace – was bad enough at the consumer end of the story, especially when owners then proceed to set them up with the wrong aspect ratio and spend half their time in “I see fat people” mode… But consider the plight of the television production industry.

First of all, as Nick Radlo points out in the February edition of Television, the Royal Television Society journal, producers no longer know more or less what their audiences will see. Will they be watching at the correct aspect ratio? (Ahem, will the broadcasters be broadcasting the correct aspect ratio?) Will the colours be right? – a problem, because as any owner of a flat-panel TV or computer monitor can attest, the colours shift with viewing angle.

And then the production team doesn’t see what it’s getting either. There’s the parallel problem to that noted above – where, this time, producers don’t know that the colours, contrast or brightness displayed on the flat-panel are actually accurate due to changes in viewing angle – and concomitant monitor alignment and colour-correction issues. In addition, consumer manufacturers are working on extending the gamut of colours their panels can show – but producers won’t come on board unless they can be convinced that the hues they produce are going to be accurately reproduced at home.

There is also the fact that flat-panels don’t do movement very well – they smear – so camera operators with LCD viewfinders, for example, have to use the slowest-moving part of a fast-moving object to attempt to focus correctly at a sporting event, because otherwise it just disappears. In addition, the de-interlacing required to drive a flat panel (all flat-panel displays are progressive, not interlaced) adds latency (delay) to the system so you don’t quite see moving objects where they actually are.

The consumer electronics giants are in charge of the race towards bigger and bigger flat panel displays, and the enormous investment in R&D and plant (the latter can cost $2 billion) means that rampant mass-production is the only way to recoup their investment. So unlike the old days, where a consumer CRT production line would be halted once a year or so to make a relatively small number of super-high-spec TV industry monitor tubes, that isn’t currently happening with flat panels.

And if you think this is a problem for the TV and consumer electronics industries, consider the plight of medical technology and specialist applications like air traffic control, where seeing subtle colour differences or the ability to spot movement can be matters of life and death.

There are two possible solutions, neither of which are in place yet. One is the introduction of a “Virtual CRT interface” in which flat panels are set up to emulate the behaviour of a CRT. This has great potential but still may not successfully address viewing angle variation issues.

The other is the development of displays that behave better. The key technology here is Organic Light Emitting Diodes, or OLEDs. Cambridge Display Technology is a leader here, and they have developed techniques that promise to make OLED displays – from viewfinders to enormous flat-panels – accurate and more tolerant of viewing angles. They also offer very fast video refresh rates and low power consumption. Not only that, they are a lot cheaper than current displays – a plant could cost as little as $200 million, making it more reasonable to consider taking time out to make some reference panels.

The first OLED displays are just starting to appear in consumer products – so far just single-colour small front-panel displays – but over the next few years they’re going to become much more widespread. In a decade, it could all be very different.

Richard G Elen

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