SED Is The Next Big Thing In TV Technology
By Cliff Roth Dealerscope | Sunday | 07/08/2005
SED is set to be the next big thing in TV technology. Its a new display technology that is set to deliver better quality and lower prices.
SED The New Screen on the Block
Looking for a lofty vision? A new display technology called SED promises to not only be the next big thing in flat panel hang-on-the-wall TV, but to replace and all-but-eliminate everything that has come before, by offering better picture quality at a lower price.
Despite the seemingly ever-expanding array of new thin screen and projection display technologiesÃ·plasma, LCD, DLP, LCoS, OLED, etc.Ã·good old-fashioned 50-year old color CRT technology remains the gold standard of picture quality. So what if you could take the front surface of a CRT-type display, using the exact same phosphors as conventional TV sets, and eliminate the depth by using a new thin-screen technology to replace the "electron gun" that makes picture tubes so deep? YouÃ¢d have the best of both worlds â€” a truly CRT-like picture you could hang on a wall. That's SED.
Who'd Behind SED?
If you've never heard of SED until now, the acronym stands for Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display â€” that may be because Toshiba and Canon, the two companies betting on this promising new display technology, have done very little to promote it,. That will change, because they're gearing up to make a big splash in 2007, with the first SED factory beginning production this August, in Japan. Both companies have been so hush-hush that at January's Consumer Electronics Show, journalists and editors were actually turned away from the invite-only SED demo, and not always nicely.
Custom Retailer Senior Editor Joe Paone was one of the lucky ones who got a sneak preview. "It was really paranoid, cloak-and-dagger stuff with the demo, I felt like Deep Throat was going to give the pitch," he says. "They showed a 36-inch, 720p model against unidentified (likely uncalibrated), similarly-sized LCD and plasma panels. I was impressed. They scrolled the alphabet along the bottom of the screen and there were no trails or artifacts whatsoever. The whole demo lasted about 15 minutes and they hustled us out of there quickly."
Other published reports by those who have seen the SED demo (it was also shown in Japan at CEATEC last year) speak in glowing terms of SED's terrific black levels and ability to show dark picture material. (Contrast ratio is claimed to be 8600:1.)
"Yes, I saw the CES demo," said Mike Mike Tsinberg, president of Key Digital Systems, a manufacturer of video switchers and processors. "I think SED is the ultimate TV display because it is the best in four categories: First, pixels are addressable, like other digital image devices such as LCD, Plasma, DLP, and DILA. Second, it uses phosphors for color. Phosphors make the best color. Third, the time decay of pixels are phenomenal. That makes SED temporal (motion) resolution the best among any display today â€” none are as fast as SED. Fourth, it uses 'tunneling' electrons for phosphor excitement - this takes much less power than plasma, and I believe is far more reliable."
Hype for SED may not have rolled into high gear yet, but behind the scenes, the machinery is coming into place for a big time rollout. Canon and Toshiba have pledged $1.8 billion to the SED joint venture, called SED Inc.. For Canon, known for cameras, camcorders and copiers but not for displays, SED offers a chance to instantly become a substantial player in a new market. Toshiba, of course, is the up-and-coming Japanese R&D star who rocked the world a decade ago with DVD innovations rivaling Sony and Philips.
SED isn't the first attempt to create a thin CRT-like display, but may be the first to succeed. Last year Canon bought up the patents for "ThinCRT" displays from a bankrupt company called Candescent, which was working on a similar FED (field emission display) technology. Candescent had already been working with Sony on FED technology. Published reports from last summer, when Sony introduced their new TV line, indicated that the company is continuing to develop this technology, but doesn't feel it's ready to market yet. The technology that Sony's working on is sometimes referred to as "CNT FED", with CNT standing for carbon nanotube, which is a slightly different electron emitter technology from that used in SED.
HOW DOES SED WORK?
The underlying concept behind SED is seemingly obvious. Instead of re-inventing the wheel with a whole new screen technology, start with what everybody knows and loves: The front surface of a traditional cathode ray tube (CRT). By combining this front surface with a new way of shooting electrons at it, and with the electrons at the same voltage as a CRT (about 10,000-volts) the exact same color phosphors can be used on the screen. It looks almost identical to a normal color TV screen, except that even in wide-screen configuration, it is perfectly flat. And it can hang on a wall.
So how does it work? True to its Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display acronym, there is a separate electron emitter for each pixel of the display. The back of the screen is coated with metal, the positive side of a high voltage (10-kV) is applied here. The negative side of the high voltage is applied to the substrate of the electron emitter panel, which is separated from the back of the screen by a vacuum. The high voltage is not enough to arc across this vacuum. However, when low-voltage electrons from the electron-emitter panel cross an extremely thin slit (just a few nanometers wide), some of them scatter and are accelerated by the 10-kV charge, hitting the back of the screen with this high voltage charge. This triggers the colored phosphor dots on the front side of the screen to illuminate, just as in an ordinary CRT screen.
The electron emitter substrate panel has a layer of ultrafine palladium oxide (PdO). This is where the microscopic slits are locatedÃ·each representing one color pixel of the image.
The scattering of electrons as they cross a microscopic gap, a byproduct of the "tunneling effect," is part of the realm of nanotechnologyÃ·the study of tiny particle science. This is the crucial aspect of SED that could not be developed 50 years ago, when CRT technology was invented.
Nanotechnology has become increasingly important as the electron pathways used in integrated circuits â€” such as Pentium processor chips â€” become ever narrower (in some cases just a few electrons wide!). In nanotechnology, the wave-like nature of atomic particles' electrons becomes a dominant aspect of their behavior.
The "scattered" electrons have essentially gone astray from the path they were trying to takeÃ·to get to the other side of the slit. This straying effect is what makes SED work. ItÃ¢s a bit like what might happen if you poured a bucket of ping pong balls into another bucketÃ·while most would go into the second bucket, a few of them might bounce out and scatter on the floor.
Besides offering better picture quality, SED is also more energy efficient than plasma and LCD technologies, the developers say, requiring roughly one third to one half the wattage-per-lumen of comparably sized competitors.
The thickness of the entire display has been reported to be less than a few centimeters, and as little as 7mm! No details regarding weight have been announced. Neither has there been any mention of how long the SED display is projected to last, which, of course, has been an issue for other display technologies.
Although last January's CES demo showed a 36-inch 720p unit, the companies say there are no plans to market this pre-production prototype. Instead, their first commercial product will be a 50-inch unit with 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution. Contrast ratio will be a whopping 8600:1. Response time â€” meaning how quickly an image can appear or disappear â€” will be just 1-millisecond. (A frame of video lasts for 33-milliseconds.)
When Will SED Be Real?
The first SED panels are scheduled for manufacture in August, 2005, but this will only be small-lot production of about 3,000 SED screens per month. These early units are expected to be available at retail by the beginning of 2006.
Full-scale production (15,000 units per month) is set for 2007, ramping up to shipments of 3-million units by 2010. In addition to the 50-inch screen, a 40-inch unit is also planned. SED Inc.'s projections predict that SED will hold a 20 percent share of the 40-inch and larger TV market by 2010.
Canon began working on the underlying concepts of SED as far back as 1986, and first signed a codevelopment agreement with Toshiba in 1999. Canon's printing and micro-fabrication technology experience will be utilized in manufacturing the large electron-emitter substrate panels, the companies say, complemented by Toshiba's expertise in phosphor-coated screens and semiconductors.
With joint R&D spanning more than half a decade and barely any publicity, the companies wanted to keep the technology under wraps until they had reduced manufacturing costs to the point where it could be competitive. Price projections released by the companies indicate that by 2010, they expect the average retail price per SED screen to be under 70,000-yen (under $700 at current exchange rates).
CHEAPER AND BETTER?
What's so exciting and unusual about SED is that it is superior on practically every front: picture quality, price, viewing angle, and power consumption. Until now, choosing a display technology for any given home theater installation has involved going through a series of trade-offs regarding price and longevity. Now, one technology may truly blow away the competition by sheer technical superiority.
Price, of course, is the key to all this: If plasma or LCD are still cheaper than SED by 2010, then all bets are off. With ever-dropping prices for these more established flat panel technologies, SED is shooting for a moving price target.
Still, it would seem to have a number of inherent advantages. Articles appearing in manufacturing-oriented publications such as Nikkei Electronics Asia confirm that Toshiba and Canon have indeed developed an inexpensive fabrication process for SED.
But from a pure picture-quality perspective, SED technology leverages some 50+ years of research into making the red, green, and blue color phosphors that coat the inside of the CRT picture tube. Among video aficionados, Toshiba has received praise over the years (from "gurus" such as Joe Kane) for offering outstanding CRT TV sets with excellent, temperature-correct color fidelity.
If SED's lifespan proves to be anywhere near the reliability of CRT technology (which currently beats all competition for longevity), that would be yet another SED advantage, and another nail in the coffins of everything else.
IMPACT ON CUSTOM
The SED publicity bandwagon may not have started yet, but it will, and your customers will likely start asking about it before it becomes widely available. This is technology focused on the wide-screen high definition digital TV marketplace of 2007 and beyond, not 2005.
Though SED screen sizes may get bigger, for the foreseeable future they will not compete with front projection, or even big rear projection screen sizes.
Initially SED will only be available in two screen sizes â€” 40 and 50-inches. At first SED may still not be the most economical choice â€” initially, it may cost just as much or even more than comparable-size plasma or LCD models. Following the usual curve, prices will go down only after economies of scale kick in.
But as SED actually becomes available beginning in early 2006, custom retailers should keep a close eye on this late-to-the-party display technology, and its progress. SED may end up stealing the show. -Cliff Roth
Cliff Roth is a writer and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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