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Display start-up projects new image

In a crowded field of start-ups, Iridigm looks to light up displays with a new technology that could consume less power than rival screens--and maybe snatch customers from LCDs.

Display start-up Iridigm wants to project a low-power image for portable device makers.

The San Francisco-based company has developed a new reflective screen technology using a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) device that the company calls "Interferometric Modulator," or "iMoD." The device could boost screen brightness to three times that of market-leading liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), while consuming less power in portable devices, according to the company.

Iridigm is one of many companies angling to take share of the multibillion-dollar display market away from the LCD makers that dominate it. The competition from other hopefuls may be the start-up's biggest obstacle, said Kimberly Allen, an analyst with research firm iSuppli/Stanford Resources.

"There is an oversaturation of new display technologies in the market, including the likes of E Ink and the OLED (organic light-emitting diode display) companies. In a down economic climate, manufacturers generally will go with what works," Allen said. "LCDs have been around a long time and are very well entrenched. Starting a new display technology and dealing with manufacturing, production and yield issues is not easy and can take a while."

Erik Larson, co-founder and chief product officer of Iridigm, acknowledged the hurdles the company faces and said it is concentrating on those it can deal with straightaway to get into the market as early as possible. For example, it has made the manufacturing processes of screens using iMoD elements compatible with the LCD infrastructure.

"LCD infrastructure is like the CMOS of the display world. People have already built an industry around it, so it was a strategic decision to make our technology compatible with LCDs to speed its transition to commercialization," said Larson.

Allen said given Iridigm's manufacturing strategy, its technology could be used in large screens before competing OLED technology--but there is greater industry interest in OLED than in Iridigm's device. However, the possibility that iMoD-based screens would consume less power than OLED-based displays was a significant arrow in Iridigm's quiver, he said.

The company plans to build momentum for its technology in product niches such as cell phones and handhelds as it tries to prove the merits of its technology to the industry.

Blocking the screen
For now, Iridigm has been prototyping screens using iMoD, which uses light interference to modulate light and convey colors. The company has five issued patents in the United States and about 15 more pending, according to Larson. The patents are for the tiny elements that are the building blocks for iMoD matrix displays.

The iMoD elements are built upon two conductive layers--one a flexible metal membrane, the other is a thin film. These layers are held about 1 micron apart between two sheets of glass. When a voltage is applied to the element, the metal membrane layer becomes attracted to the thin film layer, turning the element black. Varying the voltage brings the layers closer and farther apart, and the distance between the layers determines what color--red, green or blue--the element displays.

Fewer than 100 iMoD elements typically make up one pixel, and a typical flat-panel monitor comprises hundreds of thousands of pixels.

Screens typically draw the most power of any component in a portable device. In theory, one of the key features of iMoD displays will be their ability to hold an image without consuming much power, because of pixel memory. Once a voltage has been applied to an iMoD element, it requires less power to hold the metallic layer in place than it does to move it.

This is music to the ears of portable device makers, who are constantly looking for ways to improve battery life. Larson said it was too early to estimate how much power might be saved with Iridigm's displays, compared with LCDs, but said it would be a significant saving in portable devices.

"For many portable applications, screen content changes infrequently, and our technology only draws power during those changes. In contrast, LCDs draw power no matter what the content on a screen is doing," said Larson.

Iridigm is looking for manufacturing relationships and has already drawn interest from device makers, according to the start-up. It has raised $21 million in its series A funding round from investors including Qualcomm, Intel Capital, IDEO Ventures and Picvue Electronics.