Lasers and optics impress at CES

LAS VEGAS, NV—It was an exciting week for lasers and optoelectronics at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES; Jan.

LAS VEGAS, NV—It was an exciting week for lasers and optoelectronics at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES; Jan. 7–10). From laser TVs to LED backlights, OLED displays, pico–projectors, and high–end digital cameras, electronics aficionados were dazzled by a plethora of next–generation optical devices.

Some 2700 companies and 140,000 people attended this year’s CES. Aside from a 150–inch plasma TV introduced by Panasonic that generated major buzz, many felt the most impressive technology demo was that of the much–touted laser TV from Mitsubishi. The device combines Texas Instruments’ 1080–pixel DLP (digital light processing) HDTV chip with red, green, and blue solid–state lasers to achieve what Mitsubishi claims is 80–90% of the colors that the human eye can see (compared to 40% with high–definition TVs). The company also says that the clarity and depth perception of its laser TV is much better than other HDTVs and that the full color gamut of its laser TV prototype is 1.8 times greater than normal LCDs.

At the launch event at the Palms Hotel on Jan. 7, Mitsubishi teamed with 3–D digital technology provider REAL D to demonstrate advanced 3–D content on three prototype 65–inch flat–screen laser TVs. However, it did not provide a side–by–side comparison with other HDTVs. Still, the general consensus of those in attendance was that this product, which is expected to be available to consumers later this year, provides an impressive viewing experience. Now it is up to consumers to decide whether this feature alone is enough to compensate for what is expected to be a hefty initial price tag.

Laser TVs aside, optical technologies could be found all over CES in a variety of products and packaging. Sony demonstrated its 11–inch XEL–1 OLED television, which is now shipping in North America for about $2500. Sony also showed a 27–inch 1080–pixel OLED prototype; some industry analysts predict a CES 2009 launch for this product.

Samsung demonstrated a 31–inch OLED TV prototype, although the company says its OLED TVs are not expected to hit the market until 2010, in 20– to 30–inch sizes. These TVs employ AM OLED panels developed by Samsung SDI. The finished products weigh 40% less than LCD TVs of the same size while boasting a contrast ratio of one million to one.

On the smaller side, 3M demonstrated a new miniature projection technology that utilizes a single LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) microdisplay panel and is illuminated using an RGB LED array. The entire package is less than half an inch thick and a little more than an inch square in size. Targeted applications are mobile products such as cell phones and PDAs.

Light Blue Optics (LBO; Cambridge, UK) also showcased its miniature projection systems, which are built on its proprietary holographic laser projection technology. A diffraction pattern of the desired 2–D image is calculated using LBO’s patented holographic algorithms and then displayed on a phase–modulating LCOS microdisplay. When illuminated by coherent laser light, the desired image is then projected.

“At CES 08 we demonstrated high–resolution miniature projection systems that significantly reduce laser speckle from within the projection device and deliver ultra–wide throw angles and focus–free operation without compromising the high image quality our customers require,” said Chris Harris, LBO CEO.

Arasor acquires Novalux

Behind the scenes at CES were some interesting business developments that will likely impact the laser TV, projection, and lighting markets. Arasor (Sydney, Australia and Mountain View, CA) announced that it is acquiring Novalux (Sunnyvale, CA) for $7 million. The companies had already been technology development partners (see OER, 11/1/06), and it has been largely speculated that together they provide the laser engine that fuels the Mitsubishi laser TV, although none of the three companies will comment on or confirm this. The new relationship between Arasor and Novalux further enhances Arasor’s $300 million joint venture with ZTE, China’s largest telecom provider, to commercialize laser chip technology for use in TVs, projectors, and displays for laptops, PDAs, and mobile phones. The deal also benefits Novalux in a number of ways, according to Greg Niven, VP of marketing for Novalux.

“Our NECSEL laser uses periodically poled lithium niobate (PPLN) for frequency doubling, and Arasor makes the world’s best PPLN,” he said. “In addition, Arasor has a low–cost mass–production factory in China, which allows us for the first time to mass–produce visible lasers. They also have a well–developed vertical supply chain. The intention of Arasor going forward, in conjunction with its partnership with ZTE, is to become a major supplier of visible lasers.”

Once the acquisition is complete, Novalux will operate as a subsidiary of Arasor, although Arasor will move from its Mountain View facility into Novalux’s Sunnyvale offices. In addition to projection displays, laser TVs, and lighting applications, the Novalux/Arasor deal is beginning to attract customers in traditional laser markets such as medical, defense, and entertainment, according to Niven. Pico–projectors are another targeted growth market for Arasor, he adds, as are high–end home–theater projectors and, further out, digital cinema.

—Kathy Kincade

More in Home