CES 2018: Get Ready For The Next Wave Of Displays

You could be forgiven if you wondered where all of the televisions disappeared to at this year’s CES. Ten years ago, the walls of booths occupied by the likes of Sharp, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, and LG were stuffed full of LCD and plasma televisions. This was the flagship product for all of these companies and a big part of their sales.

But this year− A very different look. With the continued emphasis on “connected everything,” TVs moved to the background as “connected solutions” for home and office grabbed center stage. And there’s a good reason why: Display panels are inexpensive to manufacture now and the TVs they wind up in have dropped dramatically in price.

A quick check at online pre−Super Bowl TV sales showed that you can pick up a first−tier 55−inch 4K (Ultra HD) TV with “smart” functionality for about $500, spending about $100 less for a 2nd−tier brand. Want high dynamic range− Add around $300 − $400 to the price. And we’re talking about Ultra HDTVs here, not Full HD sets that can be had in the same screen size for as little as $399.

You can attribute this collapse in TV prices to large−scale manufacturing in China, where both raw material and labor costs are much lower than in older industrial companies. Robotics (another big thing at CES) also play a part: The most up−to−date display panel fabrication lines in Asia may sit in multistory buildings, but they only require about 15 to 20 people to monitor and control everything.

Lower production costs and increasing use of robotics have made it possible to jump to 8K (7680x4320) display resolution. Indeed; many pundits are predicting that 8K displays will replace 4K in a very short time period. But that’s a fanciful prediction at best, given that there is no commercially−produced 8K video and movie content and the storage required for such content would amount to 16 times that needed for plain old Full HD (1920x1080).

Still, large flat screen displays continue to push projectors out of the market. More AV installations are now using large LCD screens, some with 4K resolution. At the high end, light−emitting diode (LED) displays are now preferred for large indoor and outdoor electronic signs. They’re intensely bright, pushing out 3,000, 4,000, and 5,000 nits over wide viewing angles and creating images that hold up well even under full daylight.

But now there’s a wild card, and that’s the micro LED display. Most commercial LED displays have a dot (pixel) pitch of 4−6 mm for outdoor use. In recent years, fine pitch LED displays have dropped down below 2 mm with some videowalls touting 1.8, 1.6, 1.2, and even .9mm pitches. (For some perspective, a 50−inch plasma monitor from 1999 had about a 1.2mm dot pitch and 1366x768 resolution.)

The micro LED takes that a step further with dot pitches much smaller than 1 mm. Take that same 50−inch TV and stuff it full of 4K pixels (3840x2160), and you’ll see that a dot pitch of about .3mm is required for each pixel. (8K resolution would drop that in half again to .15mm.) It’s easy nowadays to form LCD and OLED pixels that small, but micro LEDs are a bit trickier.

Nevertheless, Samsung showed a 146−inch diagonal micro LED display with 8K resolution. Because the display uses LEDs exclusively, it’s very bright (over 2,000 nits for specular highlights) and has a wide viewing angle. This concept display was also able to show high dynamic range (HDR) video and a much wider color gamut than we usually see. Since LEDs can pulse on and off at very high speeds, this type of display is perfect for the next big revolution in imaging – high frame rate video.

We’ve seen micro LED technology before. Sony exhibited a hand−wired TV full of micro LEDs about 6−7 years ago at CES, and conservative estimates were that it probably cost in excess of $100,000 to make. Samsung’s model surely came in a lot lower than that, and for one big reason: It’s modular. The final product is actually made up of several smaller LED tiles, which is quite a revolutionary approach to building a TV.

Here’s what we find interesting: It may actually catch on. Tiling is a familiar concept to those in the AV and staging markets who routinely put together large displays for temporary or permanent installations. The thinking at CES is, “why not do this with televisions−” In essence, you could decide just how big a display you’d want in your home or office and then order up the correct number of tiles. Stack them together, connect all of the driver cables, and away you go.

Okay, maybe it won’t be that simple. But building TVs out of super−thin tiles could represent a significant manufacturing revolution, just as flat screen displays kicked tube TVs out of the market 15 years ago. What we don’t know is the final pixel resolution of those tiled TVs and how we’ll interface signals to them. Newer and faster versions of HDMI and DisplayPort may be the answer. Or perhaps it will require an entirely different method of signal transport.

Stay tuned!

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