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A Little Big Picture Looming

By Jim Bray

Get ready for a big screen TV that goes where others can’t.

This summer, there’ll be a new kid on the increasingly large block of TV types, a block that already includes direct view (CRT) TV’s, rear projectors, front projectors, LCD projectors, and plasma units. The new kid will be known by the name Liquid Crystal On Silicon.

Liquid Crystal on Silicon?

Know by the acronym LCOS, it’s a projection TV technology from Thomson Consumer Electronics, the giant electronics company that’s behind the RCA, ProScan and GE brands.

LCOS TV’s promise to be lighter, brighter and thinner than conventional rear projection TV’s, thanks to some technical wizardry that could help put such large screens into homes whose owners would have previously balked at the thought of a cinema-sized monitor and its accompanying bulk.

The first LCOS model, the RCA L50000, will be a 50 incher that measures only 47 1/8" wide by 38" high by – get this – a mere 18 inches deep. It’s also light: less than 100 pounds! RCA says it’ll actually be a table top unit, with an optional stand available.

Compare those dimensions with, for example, Sony’s current 57 inch XBR rear projector, at 54 3/8” wide by 55 1/8” high by 26 7/8” deep – and a massive 278 pounds – and you get the picture (no pun intended). Granted, because the Sony’s screen size is larger it’s a little bit of an “apples to oranges” comparison, but not too much.

RCA says the digital HDTV LCOS TV will offer a 1280 x 720 pixel progressively scanned picture (as opposed to interlaced, where half the picture is displayed at a time) in the 16x9 cinema aspect ratio that’s becoming so popular. Its “progressive matrix display frame” converts incoming video signals to the 720P HDTV standard for output, the same as is used by the ABC and FOX TV networks.

The L50000’s other innovations include a newly-designed prism system that separates white light into its 3 primary colors (Red, Green, Blue), then directs these “light streams” to an imager at which point the video signal is added. The separate signals are then melded back into a single synchronized video stream for viewing.

For comparison, conventional rear projection sets use three “tubes,” each of which throws a primary-colored image onto the screen. These images are aligned by a “convergence” control so they overlap to display full color pictures. LCOS TV’s should need no convergence adjustments.

RCA claims the LCOS has advantages over conventional liquid crystal projectors as well, in its precise color reproduction and up to 25% more light output, which means it should be substantially brighter.

The total resolution of the LCOS TV should be a spectacular 2.76 million pixels, which RCA says is three times that of typical projection TV screens. Its flat screen is also claimed to eliminate the moiré (“more-ray”) effect, a wavy distortion you may have seen sometimes.

A built-in decoder will accept and display all off-air digital HDTV signals, as well as regular and high definition DIRECTV signals (RCA’s digital satellite service). Unfortunately, the output to the screen is only at the 720P resolution which, while still excellent, isn’t as flexible as TV’s that also display 1080i, the other major HDTV format.

Oh well. To add further incentive for customers, the L50000 will also sport advanced NTSC (the current TV system that’s slowly being replaced by HDTV) twin-tuner Picture in Picture, and component video inputs (which separate the video signal into three parts) that accept analog, progressive, and HD signals.

Pricing for the L50000 should be $6,000 to $8,000.

LCOS technology could split the difference between conventional rear projection TV’s, which can be truly spectacular (but are awfully big and heavy), and plasma TV’s (which are much thinner and lighter than the other projection systems, but are very expensive and don’t do the greatest job of displaying black and white). Plasma TV’s should overcome these challenges before long, however.

If RCA’s new LCOS technology lives up to its hype, Thomson may open up new households (and, perhaps, corporate board rooms) to the concept of a large screen video display with a comparatively small footprint. This could be a big deal for people who want a truly big screen, but who don’t have the room required for a rear projector, or the bankroll for a plasma.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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Updated May 13, 2006