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Weekly Column

MEMS the Word: Why Your Next Computer Display Might Be an Empty Box

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

I was raised in the typewriter age. My first typewriter actually belonged to my brother. It was a green portable Smith-Corona. Eventually, I got my own portable — an Olivetti — then an Underwood desktop, and finally my favorite, an Olympia portable that earned me a living all over the world. That Olympia was once rebuilt for me at a shop in Iceland where they used whale oil to lubricate the mechanism. These were all mechanical typewriters, you see, not electrics.

There was something satisfying about pounding away on an old typewriter, getting so far into the moment that the guy in the next room would sometimes pound on the wall asking me to keep it down. None of that dainty,acrylic-nailed key pressing you see today, that is if you can even find a typewriter in most offices. Yet typewriters are still sold. But have you ever looked inside one? There is almost nothing in there. Gone are the levers and fulcrums and bearings and the substantial frame that once kept typewriters from shaking apart and made them a pretty fair murder weapon in the occasional detective story. Instead, the typewriters of today have a couple integrated circuits, a power supply, one or two stepper motors, a ribbon cable, a daisy print wheel, and a whole lot of air. And a couple of years from now, your computer display might be even more empty, transformed similarly as the age of the cathode ray tube display comes to an end.

Flat panel LCDs are the rage today, but that's not what I am talking about. I am talking about yet another type of display that promises to have a big impact on computers, televisions, and just about anywhere else you can imagine watching a moving picture — even at the movies. These displays are based on MEMS — Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems — tiny machines. They may well reprsent the first big success for the emerging nanotechnology industry.

But why not a flat panel LCD? Flat panels are, well, flat, which gives them a wonderful advantage. And they've gotten cheaper, too, and better at the same time, just as any product would that is based on chip-making technology. But there are real limits on how good, how big, and how cheap an LCD display can become. Chips get cheaper because they get smaller, but a 15-inch LCD display will always have to have a diagonal measurement of 15 inches, so it can't get smaller at all. Yields can improve, volumes can increase bring with them greater economies of scale, but Moore's Law only works part-time for LCDs, which, for all their flatness, will always be dimmer, too.

Meanwhile, CRTs have become incredibly cheap. A 19-inch screen that cost me over $1,000 five years ago died recently, and I replaced it for less than $300. Monitors are no longer worth fixing, they are so cheap. And that's part of the problem — disposing of all those disposable computer monitors. In the United States, computer monitors are classed as toxic waste because they each contain an average of eight pounds of lead. Where I live the trash man charges $20 to haul one away. Multiply that by the 310 million monitors that will be trashed by 2004 and getting rid of them is not only a big headache, it is a big business. Building CRTs is toxic, too, which is why it is mainly done these days in Asia. Add this all together, and the end of CRT production becomes a foregone conclusion.

But if LCDs don't scale well and CRTs are trying to kill us, how are MEMS any better? MEMS are computer chips that perform mechanical and sometimes chemical functions. Today, they mainly function as the heart of optical data and telephone switches, sending billions of photons each down the correct piece of optical fiber toward its destination. MEMS in a computer display would control a scanning mirror less than one square millimeter in area. This microscanner is designed to move in both horizontal and vertical directions so a single beam of light can be steered to project a complete video image.

MEMs displays can use the same chip for a display of almost any size. All that matters is how bright the light source. Put a MEMS chip in your mobile phone and scan a low power beam straight into your eye, not even bothering with a screen. In this case, your retina is the screen, and the display can easily match the video quality of a big screen TV. Scan a different signal into each eye, and you have 3-D. MEMS retinal displays in use today have such high color saturation that they are capable of displaying colors never before seen on a computer of television screen.

Use a more powerful light source like a laser, and the same MEMS chip can sit at the back of a television box, shining a high resolution image against a translucent screen. Here is where the typewriter analogy comes into play, because a look inside that MEMS TV would show an almost empty box. More to the point for television and computer monitor manufacturers, it would be an empty box that wouldn't have to be built in a clean room and would have almost no toxic components.

Put the screen on the wall and that MEMS chip becomes a video projector.One aspect of a MEMS display I find especially intriguing is that it doesn't have to have the regular scan interval of a CRT. The most important parts of the scene can be projected first or projected at higher resolution or a faster refresh rate. Think of this as a kind of optical video compression, which could have a major impact on high end video games.

But wait, there's more! Send the light the other way by using the MEMS chip to scan a scene and reflect it against a photoreceptor. Now the scanning engine can power a scanner or a camera. It can even become the basis of artificial sight — bionic eyes.

I am not making this up.

MEMS displays are exciting until you hear what they cost. The U.S. military buys MEMS-based retinal scan displays for use by combat pilots for around $15,000 each. You can buy a civilian version of the same product and it still costs more than $10,000 and remember this is just for one eye! But Moore's Law is our friend, remember, so those prices are going to eventually plummet.

The Microsoft of the MEMS display business is Microvision, from Bothell, Washington. Microvison, which has almost 200 patents on MEMs and retinal displays, was founded years ago to exploit work in this area done at the University of Washington. Microvision makes those expensive military displays, but they have said with a straight corporate face that the eventual target price for their MEMS-based scanning engine is $40.

You can't even buy a typewriter for that.

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