Metal-oxide backplanes should also mean less power consumption and better touch-screen responsiveness, according to the spokesperson. Unlike silicon, metal oxides are transparent, so these backplanes impede the backlight less. When displaying a still image, some of the transistors can “pause” to save power; this cuts down on the electronic noise that can interfere with touch-screen sensors. And metal-oxide backplanes can be manufactured with fewer steps than polysilicon backplanes, which should lead to cost advantages.
Sharp’s move comes as the display market undergoes a significant shift, says Paul Semenza, a senior vice president at market research firm Display Search, which is headquartered in Santa Clara, California. Large television screens have become cheap to produce, and Japanese manufacturers cannot compete with the low prices offered by manufacturers in China and Taiwan. Competitors have responded to the pressure by merging—for example, Sony, Hitachi, and Toshiba’s mobile-display subsidiaries joined together to form Japan Display Incorporated on April 1, and the company has announced it will spend $1.85 billion on research and development over the next five years.
In late March, Sharp, headquartered in Osaka, announced a strategic partnership with Taipei manufacturing giant Foxconn. It also plans to research new display technologies. “They absolutely have to find a way to drive revenues, so they are compelled to go for the cutting edge,” says Semenza. Sharp may be trying to get there by manufacturing high-end displays at lower costs, he says. Metal-oxide backplanes offer a potentially profitable middle ground between inexpensive but low-performance amorphous silicon, and high-performance, high-price polysilicon.
Sharp is making the metal-oxide LCDs at its full-scale production line in Kameyama, Japan, rather than starting them on a pilot line. Moving from one-off demo screens to full-scale production shows that metal-oxide technology has legs, says Semenza. “That’s a big commitment,” he says.