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HDTV's evolving alphabet soup: LED, OLED, LCD, DLP

New advances in display technology, showcased at related confab, are moving high-definition television forward--and driving manufacturing costs down.

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif.--So you've finally got your mitts on that 42-inch LCD TV you've been lusting after since last Christmas. Congratulations. The major television manufacturers would like to thank you for your business by finding ways to make your shiny new display look old and out of date very quickly.

SyntaxBrillian Olevia 2 Series
SyntaxBrillian is making a 1080p LCD TV for mainstream consumers with the introduction of the Olevia 2 Series. Shown here at the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference is the 52-inch version, which will retail for $2,999. Erica Ogg/CNET Networks

It's nothing personal, of course. But such is the nature of a commoditized and maturing industry like high-definition televisions. There are more than 70 TV brands on retail shelves competing for your dollars and eyeballs, and the only way to differentiate themselves is to keep tweaking the technology.

Lucky for consumers, this drive for innovation not only means better picture quality, thinner displays and lower power consumption, but potentially lower prices too.

OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) TVs are coming very soon. Sony made it official October 1 that its first OLED TV, measuring a mere 3 millimeters thick, will be available in Japan for approximately $1,739. The problem is that's the price for the 11-inch display, the only size available at first. The high price comes from the poor yields of OLED panels, according to Ross Young, president of DisplaySearch.

"With significant improvement in yields, they could get to the $1,000 price point next Christmas," he told attendees here at the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference. Because of Sony's leadership, Samsung, LG.Phillips and Toshiba are sure to follow using OLED technology in their televisions. But the market for these new sets won't actually experience real growth until 2009, and by 2011, the largest screen sizes will be hovering close to 32 inches at a price of $1,200, Young added. In contrast, LCDs should be below $500 by then.

Though it lacks a fun acronym like seemingly every other display technology, plasma technology is also making vast improvements. So much is made of high-def LCD sets that it may come as a surprise to some that plasma isn't a dead technology yet.

plasma's not dead
A plasma set from Panasonic, the world's largest supplier of plasma TVs, showcased at the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference. Erica Ogg/CNET

The best resolution available, 1080p, is moving to smaller sizes of plasma sets. The main area of interest in bettering the technology is in luminous efficiency, which is a fancy way of measuring of how much of the light your eye can see that the TV puts out. Right now, plasma sets are at about 2.5 lumens per watt. Eventually the goal is 10 lumens per watt, but 5 lumens is far more likely in the near future.

The benefit of a higher luminous efficiency is that there will be fewer components necessary to build plasma sets, which in turn reduces costs, Young said. It can also reduce power consumption by up to 50 percent and reduce the heat coming off the TV. "Plasma has done a great job cutting costs," and will continue to do so over the next five years, he said.

Another hope for creating better brightness while reducing costs is the use of LED (light-emitting diodes) as light sources. Both Dolby and Texas Instruments are working on the technology to replace the main lamp in HD televisions. LEDs can improve picture contrast because the lights can be individually "dimmed," unlike the single lamp in a standard LCD TV. Darkening individual pixels helps eliminate color bleed and motion blur.

Dolby has several LED-related patents in the area of local dimming technology and high dynamic range. Pictured here is a demo display unit utilizing Dolby Vision (which allows for increased brightness) and Dolby Contrast, featured at the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference. Erica Ogg/CNET

Thus far, the challenge of LED TVs has been the brightness factor, said Adam Kunzman, HDTV manager for Texas Instruments.

"We're just now getting to...a bright enough picture. (Brightness in LED TVs) will essentially double next year," said Kunzman. He says right now 15 percent of all TVs sold using TI's DLP (digital light processing) technology use LED as a light source.

Dolby is focusing on using LEDs to create very high contrast ratios, using patented technology called Dolby Contrast. It is a dimming technology that can create very dark blacks and pure whites by turning down individual pixels as needed. As Bharath Rajagopalan, business line director for Dolby put it, "It's not just about black and white, it's about shades of gray," which standard LCD TVs struggle with.

The use of lasers in rear-projection TVs has been anticipated since Mitsubishi first announced its intention to release a laser-based TV last year. (Though some might not be eager to stare at a device projecting a laser beam, it's not as dangerous as it sounds.)

Mitsubishi's first product likely won't debut until early next year. In the meantime, TI is also working on laser-based TV technology. The benefits will be better color (it shows 171 percent of possible colors that the human eye can detect, according to TI's Kunzman), wider viewing angles and is capable of working with TI's 3D technology for televisions.