A Time for Change

The coming of the New Year brings some exciting changes to the pages of Information Display magazine, initiatives that we believe will help continue the magazine's mission as the go-to source for information on the display industry. As I mentioned last month in this space, this issue marks the beginning of our Guest Editor program, which was inspired by the success of a similar effort undertaken for the Journal of the Society for Information Display (JSID) by editor Andy Lakatos. Each month, a designated guest editor, who is a renowned expert in that sector of the display industry, will be the driving force behind soliciting, assigning, and editing the feature articles that make up the core of ID. We have put together a formidable roster of guest editors for all of 2007, and batting leadoff for us this month is Dr. Thomas G. Fiske, Principal Systems Engineer at Rockwell Collins Display Systems in San Jose, California, who did a terrific job of putting together this issue on Display Metrology. In his Guest Editorial, Tom details the contents of the issue, as well as why Display Metrology remains such a vital topic that needs to be revisited often both in these pages and throughout the industry.

The topic of display metrology hit home with me recently when, while working for a client, I was tasked to put together a plan for a modest display photometry capability in order to improve their manufacturing and product-engineering processes. Despite the many recent advances in photometer and radiometer products, let alone the advances in the underlying technologies of detectors, filters, and embedded processors, I was surprised that very little has changed in terms of the cost to purchase and support this equipment. While the costs of many other types of test and measurement equipment have fallen significantly, the pricing of photometry equipment seems to have held at the same or higher levels for the past decade – and these are fairly heady prices. For example, a typical display integrator looking to implement spectral and luminance measurement on its production line could easily face a $35,000–$50,000 investment for suitable instruments and accessories. If the same company wanted to set up a research-and-development laboratory, the price tag could easily exceed $100,000. This may be good for the suppliers, but it is painful for well-meaning display-product companies who need to invest in this equipment. The work done by NIST and VESA to make display measurement easy enough to understand and reliably implement needs to be complemented by the availability of more-affordable equipment. Even the simple task of measuring luminance on LCDs requires an investment of at least $3000 for an entry-level instrument with good dark sensitivity and reasonable photopic accuracy.

Sources I spoke with explained that comparing the photometer business to other test-equipment businesses is unfair because the volumes are orders-of-magnitude lower. Making and selling a quality photometer requires a great deal of precision design in hardware, software, optics, and packaging that must all be put together into a product that is typically sold in single- to 10-piece quantities, not by the thousands or more. Because of these small volumes, every component in the instrument is much more expensive. Significant costs are incurred in the optics, sensors, and filters, which are often tuned and tested one by one. Therefore, rather than significantly reducing average selling prices, the industry has been busy adding additional features and improving performance to increase the value of the products they sell. Without a doubt, the equipment available today is vastly improved compared to the devices I learned on when I began my career. Nonetheless, some very good work was accomplished with simple alphanumeric displays and analog dials for adjustments. Hence, I cannot help speculating that if some of these instruments were significantly simplified down to their important core components and configured for one specific function, that they could be sold for much less money to a significantly larger customer base.

It is easy to speculate that if the cost of these systems were significantly lower, the volume of photometry equipment sales would rise in proportion. In fact, I believe this is true, even without any formal data for backup. There are many more display-product manufacturers that cannot afford to invest in photometry systems than those who can and have. When sourcing display products, the amount of recurring photometric testing can become a critical factor in the cost-model and supplier-selection process. For companies that have made the investment, the prices of their products must reflect this expense. In many cases, customers must literally choose between optical testing on one side and cost and supplier choice on the other. Lack of test data can lead to potentially expensive problems much later in the product life cycle that can embarrass both the supplier and customer. This is a problem that can be solved by taking advantage of the latest technologies in sensors, embedded processors, innovative lens materials, creative packaging, and simplification to overcome expensive components and unnecessary features. In fact, I challenge the industry to produce a sub-$1000 luminance meter and sub-$3000 tristimulus colorimeter within the next few years. The opportunity goes beyond just the increased sales in photometers, all the way to directly improving the quality and consistency of all display products.

In an effort to continually improve the quality and consistency of Information Display, we have made another change for 2007, this time to our publication schedule. Historically, the March issue of ID was never a stand-alone issue, but rather was combined with the April issue to create our SID Preview issue, which was followed in May by the SID Show issue, and in June by a stand-alone technical issue. However, due to the slight shifts each year in the schedule of Display Week, we have reconfigured the editorial schedule so that March will now stand on its own, followed by our SID Preview issue in late April and SID Show issue in late May–early June. Our regular calendar of technical topics will continue in July through the rest of the calendar year.

Once again, I thank you for your support of Information Display magazine and we look forward to your comments and feedback. Happy New Year.

– Stephen Atwood