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Getting a charge out of plasma TV

Larry Weber has been a leading force behind the big-screen TV tech. Now he's trying to tame its power consumption. Photos: A history of plasma panels

Larry Weber believes the best is yet to come in plasma televisions. And few people in the world know more about plasma TVs than he does.

Many TV industry insiders would agree that Weber, 59, has left an indelible imprint on the world of consumer electronics. One of the most respected people in the field of plasma research, Weber is technically retired. But the scientist with the trademark long, white beard is not calling it a career just yet.

That's because, as he puts it, "The best invention for plasma displays hasn't been done yet." Though he retired from Panasonic in 2004, he still whiles away time in his basement working on ways to reduce power consumption, one of plasma's persistent problems.

Weber has been a consistent contributor to the technology behind modern plasma displays for four decades. He got his start in the industry as a college student in the 1960s and to date holds 15 patents on plasma displays. Weber has also had a hand in many of the most important milestones in the advance of the plasma business, such as lower power consumption, high-contrast ratio and plasma's move into the big-screen TV market. He currently volunteers as president of the Society for Information Display and has many fans in the business.

"You could really say that if it wasn't for Larry Weber, there probably wouldn't be a plasma TV business as we have it today," said Paul Liao, chief technical officer for Panasonic North America. Liao worked with Weber from 1996--when Panasonic's parent company Matsushita acquired Weber's company Plasmaco--until Weber's retirement. "Larry is a real visionary with a tremendous passion to see that vision come true."

It's been a bumpy ride for the inventor, who has watched what was once a revolutionary technology become slowly commoditized over the last four decades. If he does figure out how to make plasma TVs suck less energy, it "will be bigger than any of them I've done so far," he said excitedly in a telephone interview from his home in upstate New York. He's not the only one looking into the problem and could probably afford to take a break, but that doesn't look likely.

"It's part of my passion, something I've got to do," he said. "It's such a big opportunity to get to completely change everything."

As a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Weber met Don Bitzer and Gene Slottow, engineers who are credited with inventing the plasma display in 1964. Simultaneously, Japanese electronics maker Fujitsu and television station NHK were also working on a slightly different version of plasma. Intrigued by Bitzer's and Slottow's work, Weber decided to study under them for his postgraduate work. Thinking back, Weber says the project didn't exactly exude signs of real-world promise.

"It was nothing very exciting," Weber said. "It looked like some professor's pet project that looked like it wasn't going to go very far."

Still, he was hooked. Though most engineers dreaming of a future in hardware chose to research semiconductors, Weber stuck with plasma. A display that could show graphics well was desperately needed at the time, not for televisions, but for companies and researchers to display high-quality graphics. Unlike plasma research today, cramming as many pixels into a superthin form factor wasn't a priority--simply finding a way to make an image remain on a screen for more than a couple of hours was the main challenge.

The power consumption challenge
Weber's tackling of power consumption today is in some ways a reprisal of past work. After completing his studies, he stayed at the University of Illinois as a professor, heading the plasma display research group. For one of his first important contributions, Weber concocted a way to reduce the power for the display's circuitry. Today, every color plasma display uses his invention, called an energy recovery sustain circuit, which knocks down power consumption by up to 150 watts.

After discovering that, the next step was to put energy recovery sustain circuit to practical use. In the U.S., plasma was being widely researched at companies like AT&T, Texas Instruments and IBM. One by one, the biggest companies were dropping out of the plasma business, and in 1987, Weber received disheartening news: the world's largest plasma plant, run by IBM in Kingston, N.Y., would be shut down in favor of manufacturing mainframe computers. Weber took the news particularly hard.

"I'd worked on it for 18 years by that point," he said. "My dream had just evaporated."

After mulling his future, he made a decision that probably saved the plasma TV business. "After a month of depression I said, 'Oh, there's a fantastic opportunity here.'" He was 40 years old then, and in his words, was broke, but had "plenty of ambition," so he found people at IBM willing to work with him to buy the plasma-making equipment and finance a new company. Called Plasmaco, Weber's new business immediately got to work churning out 10- and 21-inch monochrome displays using his very own energy recovery sustain circuit.

It wasn't the first time, and it doesn't look like the last that the plasma display has appeared headed toward extinction. But Weber stuck with it anyway. "I knew it hadn't reached its potential, so I just kept working on it. Maybe I was naive. I was young, energetic and there was always the next thing to do," he recalled.

Plasma's future again looked uncertain in 1993 when rival display technology liquid crystal display (LCD) began to incorporate multiple colors, while plasma was getting by with just orange and black. Though color wasn't impossible with plasma, it just hadn't been necessary--yet.

"I knew it had tremendous potential and it wasn't living up to that potential...it worked out much better than I ever imagined."
--Larry Weber, plasma research pioneer

In January 1994, faced with being put out of business by LCD, Weber dreamed up a way to start producing color displays using the Plasmaco facilities. He had until June of the same year. Five months is cutting it close for a process that should have taken more than a year.

Though it was down to the wire, with the soldered connections still hot, Weber unveiled his color plasma display on schedule at an important industry event.

"I turned it on and everyone's jaws dropped. They said, 'Wow, what a beautiful display, the colors are so bright, the colors are so sharp!'" Weber recalled.

What they really liked, but couldn't quite put their fingers on, he said, was the contrast ratio. "What they meant was that the colors were bright, but that the areas next to (the colors) were completely dark," he said. What they didn't know was that in his rush to get the display to the show, he had only connected power to the color pixels and not the black ones, meaning no light at all was coming from the black pixels, creating incredibly rich contrast.

It was completely an accident, but a happy one at that. "I had to invent something that worked. I just learned how important contrast ratio was to people. They really liked that," he said.

The contrast ratio he had mustered was a mere 400:1. Today, the best plasma TVs feature . Fortunately for Weber and Plasmaco, his technology got the attention of Matsushita, the Japanese electronics giant known stateside as Panasonic. Two years later, by January 1996, Plasmaco and its contrast-ratio technology were purchased by Panasonic.

Competing directly with LCD makers would eventually be a losing battle, according to Weber. In 1996, they decided to go somewhere LCD couldn't.

"We knew at the time LCD and CRT couldn't (scale to larger sizes)," Weber said. "We realized we might have a market all to ourselves."

Though at the time a 42-inch display was considered large, Plasmaco figured out how to make a 60-inch panel. One of the biggest problems wasn't making a panel that large, which they did successfully, but finding a furnace that could fit a 60-inch panel to heat the glass.

Stretching screen size helped catapult plasma into a new niche, one that it owned for at least a decade. But as with everything else in consumer electronics, things change. Today, LCD TVs can get big--Sharp unveiled an LCD display at CES this year measuring 108 inches diagonal. And LCD TVs in the 37- to 42-inch range sport price tags that are becoming more attractive too, as many more vendors are jumping into the business.

Still, Weber soldiers on. Though no one person can be given credit for where plasma display technology is today, no one's been around consistently longer than Weber, and he's not planning on leaving the business any time soon.

"Maybe one of the things I contributed is I survived all these years in that business. There are not many survivors from that era, the '60s, that are still working on plasma displays today," he said. "I believed in it. I knew it had tremendous potential and it wasn't living up to that potential...it worked out much better than I ever imagined."