May 28, 2004
SEATTLE - A television sewn into your shirt sleeve. A dashboard screen to monitor the goings-on in your back seat, along with a rearview mirror offering directions to your hotel. A three-dimensional computer monitor with such high resolution that it could make a hardcore gamer's heart stop - or help a surgeon start one.
Most people don't have access to this type of technology yet, but just wait. The gizmo-packed exhibition hall at the Society for Information Display's international symposium offers a tantalizing vision of what could be coming soon to your living room, cell phone, laptop, even your clothing.
The meeting in Seattle this week was all about extremes - monitors that are very big or very small, very thin, very light and very, very high-resolution.
Another big focus: making the cutting-edge technology very low cost, to appeal to manufacturers looking to eke out profits and consumers who might balk at $12,000 price tags.
That's about the cost now of SeeReal Technologies' stunningly detailed 3-D computer monitor. The tiny German company's screen has two built-in cameras that track the viewer's eye movements, which lets the viewer change position and still see the 3-D display in focus, instead of having to stand stock still.
For now, the screens are aimed at such applications as government officials pouring over detailed maps or doctors performing delicate surgery. But the company recently introduced a lower-end version of its product - without the eye tracking system - for about $3,600. In perhaps a year, SeeReal hopes to be able to offer a 3-D monitor to consumers such as video game enthusiasts, for about $500.
While many companies were promoting super-slim screens for use in cell phones, handhelds and other devices, researchers from Royal Philips Electronics were showing off technology still in development that would make screens as thin and flexible as a piece of plastic.
The ultra-lightweight displays also promise to be rugged but easier to cut to size, potentially making them much easier for manufacturers to work with, said Henri Jagt, a researcher with Philips in the Netherlands.
The screens could be used for "wearable displays" sewn onto jeans or a sweater, or to create a low-cost curved computer monitor. But Jagt said not to expect such products to hit the market for at least three years.
Eastman Kodak Co. touted its thin, high-resolution screens made with "organic light-emitting diodes" as being better than liquid-crystal displays because they don't need a backlight.
The screens are already being used in digital cameras, cell phones and car stereos. But the Rochester, N.Y.-based company also is suggesting quirkier uses, such as a dashboard monitor to police the kids in the back seat, or a directional display on the rearview mirror.
Korea's Samsung SDI is working at what might appear to be cross-purposes. Its massive 80-inch plasma screen is designed to provide high resolution at a low cost, while its tiny 1.8 inch LCD screen aims to wow users looking for the latest and greatest gadget, with little regard to cost.
Spokesman Bryan Sohn said that for manufacturers interested in the big screens, "the main factor is price" - can it be used to reasonably sell a product at a profit? But for enthusiasts who would buy the small screens, the question is whether they can watch a graphically complex movie like "The Matrix" on a cell phone, not how much that experience would cost.
Sohn wouldn't say how much such devices might sell for. The big screens are aimed at industrial and corporate uses, such as airport and advertising displays, while the little ones could find use in a variety of pocket devices, such as handheld computers, organizers and phones.
For companies such as Samsung and Kodak, a big selling point of their new technology is that the screen image stays sharp and clear even when seen from an angle. But 3M says the advantage of one of its screens is that data can't be seen from the side, thus protecting confidential information from the prying eyes of strangers.
St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M has for years offered shields that could be installed over computer screens, said engineer Ken Miller, but now is building the shields into the displays. The company already has some interest from financial services companies, and it's also hoping to sell the product to people who make ATMs and other kiosks that ask for confidential information.