Age of the Big Screen
Two televison technologies—plasma and LCD—face off
Suddenly, a four-inch-thick “flat-screen” LCD or plasma HDTV is considered fat. In the last year or so, nearly every HDTV manufacturer has introduced a “slim” model, usually around an inch and a half thick or thinner.
It seems downright absurd to describe a four-inch-thick TV as obese and déclassé. Less than a decade ago, the dominant big-screen TVs were refrigerator-sized 20-plus-inch-deep rear projection models.
Perhaps science fiction has thoroughly inculcated the American public with wall-sized flat TVs (as in Star Trek) to make consumers think of flat TVs as perfectly natural, a technological inevitability, and even a right. This might explain why it was only seven years between the first commercial flat screen going on sale and all other TVs being rendered obsolete. But like most overnight successes, flat-screen TVs spent a long time in invisible development.
Thank Goodness Their Wives Were Late
Even though LCD technology is behind more than 90 percent of all HDTVs sold today, it was gas plasma that made possible the creation of large, flat-panel screens less than six inches deep. Screens using gas plasma, referred to today as just “plasma,” could be made larger and more cheaply, producing crisper, faster-rendered and brighter images than panels using the older but more expensive LCD technology.
Research on plasma technology began in the mid-1960s at Fujitsu in Japan and at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus under the leadership of Don Bitzer. And as in many cases, the screen’s development was largely a matter of need, not to fulfill Ray Bradbury’s vision of wall-sized screens in Fahrenheit 451. The “aha” moment came at an annoying moment outside the lab.
Bitzer, the director of the university’s Coordinated Science Laboratory, was charged with creating the first computer-based instructional system. But it was clear that current screen technology would not be economical for schools. A new, brighter display was needed that had no flicker and higher contrast than CRTs.
To help create a whole new display technology, Bitzer recruited fellow professor Gene Slottow and graduate student Robert Willson. But as with Rubik’s Cube, whatever solution solved one problem caused others. One spring evening in 1964, Bitzer and Slottow found themselves waiting outside the lab for their wives, who were running late. The pair started talking and soon figured out a way to create color through light emitted by energizing neon gas sealed between two sheets of phosphor-coated glass.
The next morning, Bitzer, Slottow, and Willson started on a new model that used three layers of glass: the center layer with rows of tiny holes filled with a mixture of gas, and the outer layers lined with transparent metallic threads to carry the electrical current necessary to excite the gas in the tiny holes. The trio completed the first gas plasma panel, a monochrome display that glowed orange, in July 1964.
Early displays were used as intended, for computer graphics. But by 1966, Bitzer, Slottow, and Willson were demonstrating multicolor panels using a gas discharge rich in ultraviolet light and color phosphors that could be used for TVs.
From Lab to Living Room
It took 30 years to commercialize gas plasma for consumer TVs. Much of the work to turn Bitzer’s, Slottow’s, and Willson’s display into commercial television panels was done by researcher Larry Weber, who devoted more than 20 years to plasma development, much of it with a company called Plasmaco as well as with Fujitsu, which unveiled the first color display in 1993. The first consumer plasma TV, the 42-inch Philips PW9962, went on sale in 1997 for $15,000.
The timing was propitious—both DVD and HDTV first became available at around the same time. But plasma’s price, and that of subsequent large-screen LCD HDTVs, remained high until mid-decade, when a glut of suppliers set off a price war between the two technologies. Between early 2004 and late 2005, prices for both types of HDTVs plunged by half, below the $2,000 mark for a 42-inch set. Lower pricing, coupled with widespread availability of both HDTV programming and DVD discs for sale and rent, resulted in double the sales of suddenly affordable flat screen TVs between 2005 and 2006. Within a couple of years, only a handful of companies continued to make the now anachronistic non-flat-screen HDTVs.
Prices have since dipped to below $1,000 for an HDTV far superior to its $15,000 forbear. More than half of current U.S. households have at least one flat-screen HDTV, a rate growing by nearly 10 percent a year.
2001 flat-panel HDTV units sold: 860,000
2009 flat-panel HDTV units sold: 31.5 million
Only three companies—Panasonic, LG, and Samsung—continue to make and sell plasma HDTVs, which means that the future looks bad for the original flat-plasma TV technology. Plasma could hold on as several HDTV makers, including Panasonic, prepare to introduce 3D HDTVs in the fall of 2010. By then, even LCD models may be facing competition. Several HDTV makers have been experimenting with the superior OLED (organic light-emitting display) technology, which offers bright screens with more vibrant colors and using less power than either plasma or LCD. But OLED’s history is similar to the development of LCD—it’s currently too expensive in larger sizes. But as with LCD, economies of scale and further development are bound to solve that problem.