Tech Know: Thin is in

Steve Trautlein looks into plasma TVs, whose flat screens are cropping up all around town.

On the third floor of their showcase building in Ginza, Sony has constructed what it hopes is the lounge space of the future. Cutting-edge electronics like a giant projection TV and tiny DVD players are paired with homey furnishings. But visitors' eyes are inevitably drawn to a sleek television that's impossibly thin, has a 42-inch rectangular screen, and shows a picture that's astoundingly bright and clear. Hooked up to an array of speakers and other equipment, the TV is less a monitor than a wall of brilliant color and sound.

Sony isn't the only manufacturer with high hopes for plasma TVs, technically known as Plasma Display Panels, nor are the units only for use in homes. "When our clients see the plasma display, it really knocks them over," says Hunter Brumfield, president of Face-to-Face Communications, which provides video and other conferencing services to corporate Japan. He says that the company's 42-inch Hitachi PDP, which they acquired two months ago, comes closest to giving the illusion of in-person meetings. And recently, a promotional drive in Tokyo station for tourism to northern Japan featured, among its posters and brochures, a massive bank of scenery-showing plasma TVs.

The enthusiastic response from such varied sectors of the business community speaks volumes about the PDP's groundbreaking technology, and the trust that they'll eventually emerge as the industry standard. For rather than refining existing technology, plasma sets are as radically different from traditional TVs as color models are from black-and-white ones—perhaps even more so.


Bloodless coup
Both traditional TVs, which employ cathode ray tubes, and their plasma descendants create images by directing electrons (negatively charged particles) at light-emitting substances known as phosphors. In a CRT model, the electron beam travels through a tube from the rear of the TV up to the screen. But because the tubes are large and heavy, the TVs that house them are too, and any increase in the size of the screen necessitates a corresponding increase in the length—and bulk—of the tube.

Plasma TVs eliminate tubes altogether. Instead, they rely on hundreds of thousands of tiny cells that lie between two plates of glass just underneath the screen's surface. Inside each cell is a gas mixture known as plasma—not to be confused with the medical term that refers to the fluid part of blood. Gas atoms contain an equal number of protons (positively charged particles) and electrons, resulting in a net neutral charge. Plasma, though, also contains charged particles; running an electric current through plasma excites its gas atoms—typically xenon and neon—with electrons flowing toward positively charged areas and protons jumping to the negative. This flow of charged particles, known as ionization, stimulates the gas atoms to release ultraviolet photons, which then hit a coating of phosphor to produce visible light.

The space saved by eliminating tubes causes most PDPs to be only a few inches deep and to weigh substantially less than their CRT counterparts. But the most startling change, and the one that is getting the industry and consumers excited, comes in the picture quality itself. Because all the pixels of a PDP are illuminated at once—as opposed to CRTs, which use a beam that illumines phosphors by progressively scanning the screen from top to bottom—the displays can be viewed from virtually any angle without a loss of picture quality, in addition to being able to produce 16,700,000 colors. Plasma picture quality is also unaffected by ambient light, unlike CRTs or projection TVs.


Showing off
On the home entertainment front, such advances are increasingly necessary because of concurrent innovations in broadcasting technology. High-definition TV (known in Japan as Hi-vision), a set of standards governing broadcast signals and their reproduction, is slated to become the norm here by 2006.

In the plasma TV showroom at Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku, behemoth 50-inch PDPs show the Hi-vision offerings from the satellite broadcaster BS 1. To anyone reared on traditional TV, viewing such a picture is an uncanny experience. Colors have a brightness and images have a crispness that aren't diminished by distance from the screen or angle of viewing.

As of now, however, there are only 10 Hi-vision channels being broadcast in Japan, and with a cost ranging from ¥400,000 to over ¥1,000,000, plasma TVs remain beyond the reach of many consumers. Adding to the expense is that PDPs are just what their name says: displays. Although most models at shops like Yodobashi Camera are equipped with digital tuners that can receive HDTV and other signals, basic amenities like speakers cost more.

Nonetheless, the store sees a lot of traffic, and not just from the curious. Current bestselling models include Pioneer's massive 50-inch PDP-503 HD, which retails for a cool ¥1,080,800, and the 42-inch Panasonic TH-42PXS10, at ¥798,000. "The cost is very high," concedes Shigeru Umeda, a salesman at Yodobashi. "But all sets are now manufactured in Japan. When they become cheaper to produce, the prices will drop and everyone will be buying them." As both Sanyo and Matsushita, which makes PDPs under the Panasonic moniker, have announced factory openings in China, the sets should become cheaper before long.


Coming to an office near you
While consumers may yet be lukewarm to the products, the business community is avid about PDPs, taking advantage of their versatility and striking picture quality with applications that include updateable signage, like that showing flight information at airports, as well as touch screens and displays in corporate lobbies and executive offices.

And what to expect in the future? Brumfield predicts that PDPs will become the standard in video conferencing. PDPs are the interface of choice for Panasonic's planned integrated home network, one that will also allow users to check the contents of their fridge from remote locations or autocook with their microwave oven. No matter what use they're put to, though, any future involving plasma displays is bound to be bright—and thin.

Photo courtesy of Face-to-Face Communications.

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