A year ago, the projection TV choices available to consumers were almost exclusively limited to three primary types of display technology: CRT, LCD and DLP.
Videophiles were mourning the apparent demise of a particularly promising TV technology: Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS). The primary proponents of LCoS at that time – Intel and Phillips – had just thrown in the proverbial towel after failing to establish a foothold on the market for their LCoS TV products.
Today, however, it appears that pronouncements of the death of LCoS TV technology may have been exaggerated. At the very least, they were premature. In this article, we’ll take a look at LCoS TVs and their miraculous reappearance, and we’ll discuss why you may want to consider owning one yourself.
Recent data from market research firm Current Analysis indicates that LCoS has made a startling comeback in 2005, expanding from a single close-out model lingering on U.S. retail shelves last January to nearly a dozen freshly minted LCoS displays available today.
[nextpage title=”20/20 Hindsight”]
If we travel back to the fall of 2004, the news came like a one-two punch: First, Phillips announced that it was exiting the LCoS TV business, then, in short order, Intel followed suit. It came as a blow to many consumers and industry watchers, who had come to the conclusion that LCoS was akin to the Great White Hope – an embodiment of a promising new display technology that combined the best of both worlds: In this case, it blended the finest attributes of liquid crystal displays (LCD) and DLP (originally an acronym for Digital Light Processing, though it is now a trademarked brand name owned by Texas Instruments).
Like direct view and projection LCD TVs, LCoS uses tiny liquid crystals to create the colored pixels that make up the TV’s onscreen display. By applying an electrical charge to a cell filled with the liquid crystals, the state of the crystal is changed to permit or block light – turning the pixel on or off. The LCoS architecture also borrows from DLP technology, which uses microscopic mirrors to direct light. In an LCoS imaging system, the liquid crystal layer sits on top of a reflective mirror substrate. Instead of shining a backlight directly through the LCD layer, light is bounced off the mirror behind the liquid crystal.
There are several inherent advantages of LCoS technology:
1. Unlike conventional DLPs, there are no moving parts – no pivoting micro-mirrors or spinning color wheels. The latter is the culprit behind the “rainbow effect” artifacts that bother some DLP viewers.
2. Unlike conventional LCD display panels, the matrix lines that separate individual pixels are thinner, eliminating the “screen door” effect of black lines appearing between pixels.
So, what’s not to like? Well, along with other drawbacks that became evident in the manufacturing process, high cost was a major culprit. LCoS favors the production of larger, higher-definition displays. By and large, they proved to cost more than the majority of consumers were prepared to pay in 2004 and early 2005 – particularly when a variety of other excellent and more affordable display technologies were readily available. Plasma technology, in particular, became considerably less expensive, and its mixture of large screen sizes with highly coveted thinness made most buyers think twice before purchasing a comparatively bulky rear-projection TV (RPTV).
[nextpage title=”The LCoS Renaissance”]
After the disappearance of Intel and Phillips from the LCoS manufacturing scene, most consumers wrote off the display technology as a failed experiment. Thomson (under the RCA brand) and Toshiba (which used Hitachi LCoS panels) had already been burned by first-generation LCoS products and wasted no time beating a hasty retreats.
As of January 2005, Current Analysis retail field collectors could locate only a few remaining Phillips 55-inch LCoS-based 55PL9773/17 models left in stores, selling for a close-out price of $1,799. In February 2005, Mitsubishi weighed in with its gargantuan 82-inch WL-82913. At a street price of $14,999, the TV seemed to underscore the point that LCoS was beyond the reach of ordinary consumers and was therefore unsuited to the high-volume retail CE channel.
Finally, as winter turned to spring in 2005, a perceptible thawing of the LCoS market began. The first signs of returning life came courtesy of Sony, which introduced the long-awaited Qualia KDS70Q006, featuring the company’s proprietary SXRD variation of the LCoS process. The April 2005 debut of the 70-inch TV, at an introductory price of $12,999, did little to dispel prevailing attitudes regarding LCoS: too big, too expensive, too late. However, the impressive visual quality of the systems, coupled with the charismatic Sony nameplate, had the effect of reinvigorating interest in LCoS products – even if they still fell short of generating actual demand.
JVC turned on the taps for its own second-generation HD-ILA family of LCoS TVs beginning in May 2005. The company continually pumped out at least one new model each month to the end of the year. Most importantly, the average introductory price of these new LCoS TVs was only $3,200, placing LCoS back within the reach of ordinary mortals. Sony followed suit with two additional SXRD TVs in November: the 50-inch KDS-R50XBR1 and the 60-inch KDS-R60XBR1, bearing average street prices of $3,879 and $4,874, respectively. As the saying goes, we now had a ballgame.
The greater availability of LCoS, bolstered by a staggering 38% drop in the average price of LCoS-based TVs during 2005 – and helped in no small part by the blessing of Sony’s brand name – created a turning point for LCoS on the market. As a result, the technology began to carve out a slice of the U.S. retail business in the latter half of the year. In fact, by year’s end, LCoS had risen from a 0.0% shelf share (the percentage of products for sale in U.S retail chains) to a tie with direct-view LCD TVs in the 40-inch-and-up category. Both LCoS projection TVs and direct view LCD TVs currently stand at about 5% of available product placements among major retailers.
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The future for LCoS displays appears infinitely brighter than it did a year ago. LG has announced plans to join the fray this quarter with a 71-inch 1080p model. Hitachi is also waiting in the wings, having reportedly postponed a planned November 2005 launch of new 60- and 70-inch LCoS models. Syntax, best known as a supplier of low-cost, direct-view LCD TVs, also has an LCoS model on the market, acquired through its controlling interest in Arizona-based LCoS specialist Brillian; a 50-inch Syntax model was briefly available at retail last year in CompUSA stores for $1,899. Lastly, Canon, which hopes to enter the digital TV market later this year with a revolutionary new display technology called SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display), also has an LCoS image engine that it currently sells in the front projector market.
At this juncture, LCoS seems to have risen, phoenix-like, from its own ashes. With major and minor brands driving it forward, the display technology should continue to make a dent in the big screen marketplace during the remainder of 2006, perhaps even doubling its shelf share by the beginning of 2007. The growing interest in 1080p display resolution – despite the continuing absence of true 1080p broadcast content in the United States – will also provide a reason for consumers to consider buying LCoS TVs in the coming year.
For consumers ready to take the plunge into HDTV viewing, the expanding number of choices is both a blessing and a curse. Picking the right TV for your home has never been more difficult. In addition to excellent “microdisplay” projection technologies such as DLP, LCD and LCoS, there is a growing selection of LCD and plasma flat-panel offerings that are becoming ever-larger and less expensive. If LCoS TV manufacturers continue to provide TVs with stunning visual quality at competitive prices, the hybrid display technology will successfully occupy the home-theater high ground.