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A New Breed of Laser TV

Laser phosphor displays promise efficiency and simple manufacturing.

New display concepts are a dime a dozen. However, very few of them find their way beyond prototype stage, and even if they do, they usually can’t compete with the manufacturing muscle of the $100 billion liquid crystal display (LCD) industry. But a display startup called Prysm believes that its technology, called laser phosphor display (LPD), has the perfect combination of picture quality, energy efficiency, and manufacturing simplicity to have a chance of breaking through.

The San Jose-based Prysm, which came out of stealth mode last week, has been getting plenty of media attention due to its claims of energy efficiency. According to Roger Hajjar, the company’s chief technology officer, an LPD consumes a fourth of the power of a liquid crystal display with the same brightness and about a tenth of the power of a plasma screen (although an LPD also shines brighter than a plasma screen, so the comparison isn’t direct, according to Hajjar).

“The physics is simple,” says Hajjar. In other displays, he says, “the light source is mostly on and there’s a threshold power requirement even to keep the screen black.” In an LPD, he says, the lasers get to rest where the screen is dark, saving power.

The concept behind LPD is relatively straightforward. Beams of light from several ultra-violet lasers are directed by a set of movable mirrors onto a screen made of a plastic-glass hybrid material coated with color phosphor stripes. The laser draws an image onto the screen by scanning line by line from top to bottom. The energy from the laser light activates the phosphor, which emits photons, producing an image.

An LPD differs significantly from a LCD, in which a backlight, made of either white LEDs or a cold-cathode florescent light, shines through layers of optics, including color filters and liquid crystals, to produce an image. More than 90 percent of the original light is lost in this process. Another competitor, plasma display technology, consists of small cells of ionized gases that emit light–a process that requires a relatively large amount of power. And a conventional laser television, such as the LaserVue, made by Mitsubishi, uses red, blue, and green lasers and a micromirror device that combines and directs the light. This is essentially a rear-projection display, but because of its high price tag, it hasn’t become widely popular.

Crucially, Hajjar says, larger LPDs are also energy efficient compared to today’s larger displays, such as electronic billboards. Compared to an LED billboard, where each diode is a pixel, an LPD of the same size and brightness eats up only about a tenth of the power, since fewer lasers are used compared to the number of LEDs required for the billboard.

Technically, an LPD is most similar to a cathode ray tube (CRT) display–the bulky design that is quickly becoming obsolete. Inside a CRT, a magnet directs an electron beam onto a phosphor-coated screen. But because LPD uses solid-state lasers, which are compact and lower power, an LPD set can be thinner and more energy efficient while producing a similar high-quality image.

Hajjar explains that LPDs are possible thanks to the growth of the solid-state lighting industry, in which LEDs are becoming an alternative to incandescent bulbs and compact fluorescent lighting. The type of phosphors used in an LPD is identical to the type used to coat LEDs in lighting applications.

This means that the manufacturing of LPDs will piggyback on the growth of the fledgling LED lighting industry. This is an advantage, says Hajjar, who stresses that it’s easier to assemble components that can be bought off the shelf than to develop entirely new manufacturing processes. Indeed, Prysm, which has a manufacturing facility in Concord, MA, doesn’t need to build a new semiconductor fabrication plant, as other new display companies tend to do. This is expensive and it takes a significant amount of time to get the fab up and running.

There are potential advantages in the simplicity of the manufacturing process, says Paul Semenza, an analyst at research company Display Search, because there’s no need for huge factories, expensive equipment, and a lot of materials. “The capital investments are much, much less than for flat-panel displays,” he says.

That said, Semenza suspects that technical challenges could come from the fact that Prysm has developed and is manufacturing its own screens, which could hamper production. In addition, there could be some challenges reliably aligning the lasers, optical scanner, and screen.

However, if these problems are overcome, Semenza says, LPD could be attractive to a number of different markets. It’s possible to inexpensively tailor an LPD to a specific brightness, size, and resolution, he notes.

Prysm is initially targeting the consumer display market, competing directly with companies making the types of flat-screen televisions many people are putting in their living rooms today. According to Prysm, the first product will be announced in the coming months, and it will be priced competitively with other displays on the market, with an eye toward expanding to large advertising displays.

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