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Picture fuzzy for organic thin TVs

OLED TVs are thin and have a great picture. But most manufacturers will hold off for several years.

LAS VEGAS--Thin TVs made with organic light-emitting diodes could become a big hit with consumers, but not any time soon, according to Toshihiro Sakamoto, president of the Panasonic AVC Networks company.

"It will start to grow as a market in 2015," he said during an interview at the taking place here this week. "You won't be able to beat the cost and price performance of LCD and plasma for a long time."

OLED TVs are thin--measuring about 3 millimeters, or the width of three credit cards--and sport contrast ratios that far exceed standard LCDs (liquid crystal displays) or plasmas. The manufacture of curved displays is also possible with OLEDs. In some senses, OLEDs are similar to LCDs. The base of the panel is the same, but the upper half of the panel consists of different chemicals that emit their own light. LCDs, in contrast, need a backlight.

Sony has captured a of buzz at CES this week with its OLED TV that's been on sale in Japan since October and just came to the U.S.

However, other makers are taking more time to debut OLED TVs. Both Panasonic and Samsung are showing off OLED TV prototypes this week at CES and both companies are "committed to the technology," a phrase that typically means a company plans to sink millions into research and development in hopes of bringing a product to market.

Samsung might launch OLED TVs in two or three years, said S.I. Lee, senior vice president of marketing for digital media at the company.

Hitachi is in the same boat. The company likes the technology, saying that it's the TV technology of choice for the future, but won't likely come out with OLED TVs until 2015 at the earliest. That's when it could be possible to make a 33-inch OLED TV economically, according to the company.

"The contrast and picture quality is good," said Makato Ebata, CEO of the consumer business group at Hitachi. "How can it be done economically? That is the big question. The cost competitiveness of LCD and plasma are incredible."

Sharp Electronics is in wait-and-see mode, too, a company representative said.

Why the wait? Right now, OLED TVs cost a lot--Sony's sells for $2,500--and they are far smaller than the 40-plus-inch TVs consumers are buying. Sony's TV measures 11 inches in diameter. Manufacturers also continue to find ways to drop the manufacturing cost, and hence retail price, of TVs based around the existing technologies.

"We want to make TVs for more than 0.001 percent of the market," Lee said.

Manufacturing OLEDs also remains an art more than a science. Sony execs acknowledged that the reason their initial OLED TV is so small is that it is tough to make large-screen versions. (Today, OLEDs are mostly used as screens in cell phones.)

"The difficult challenge with the larger screen sizes is improving the yields. There are a lot of complications, many more than with LCD," said Katsumi Ihara, executive deputy president and the head of Sony's Consumer Products Group. "The yields tend to be low. That is the biggest challenge."

The basic technology also needs some work, added Sakamoto. Unlike plasmas or LCDs, moisture can penetrate OLED screens, which can damage them.

"At the moment, there are also no equipment manufacturers for the upper half of the panel," Sakamoto said. "I'm very positive. It is a very promising display for post-plasma and post-LCD, but it will take time."

Durability is also an issue. No one really knows how long OLED TVs will last. Sony's Ihara, though, said his company has conquered a lot of the problems. If you watched TV for eight hours a day, Sony's OLED TV would last for ten years, Ihara said.

Still, the promise is there.

"OLED has the capability to be cost-competitive with LCD or better," Ebata said. "And the picture quality is better and the energy consumption is far lower. There are not too many people that deny the future of OLED."