Another interesting find at the recent Flat Information Displays conference in San Francisco was a company called BrightSide that is making a turbocharged LCD TV. Its technology, dubbed “High Dynamic Range” purportedly produces a 200,000 to 1 contrast ratio (the difference in brightness between a screen’s darkest and lightest state). Contrast ratio is a big deal, because it helps you see slight shading variations and therefore more detail and dimensionality in screen images. In comparison, a regular high-end LCD TV, such as Sharp’s LC-37D7U AQUOS has a claimed contrast ratio of 800 to 1. Now, all these numbers are probably fudged to some degree, but the difference between the BrightSide TV and typical LCDs is still remarkable. And I say that with some confidence because I’ve seen BrightSide in action.
So how do they do it?
Instead of using fluorescent bulbs to provide a constant light source behind the LCD panel, BrightSide uses an array of light emitting diodes (LEDs), which can be switched on or off faster than the frame rate of the video. So they can custom-adjust the lighting for every frame. Plus, they can control each individual LED to adjust the brightness for specific regions of the screen. (They call this technology "individually modulated LEDs" or IM-LED.) This gets around the main problem of an LCD panel. LCDs use fast-moving, light-blocking crystals to regulate how much of the backlight comes out the front of the screen. In theory, if you tell the crystals to go black, they will block all the light. But in practice, a considerable amount of light “leaks” thought the screen. So black on an LCD is really just dark gray. With such a wimpy black, LCDs just can’t produce a very high contrast (black to white) ratio. (Plasma and CRT televisions do far better blacks.) By turning down the backlight where needed, you can make the screen much darker.
And BrightSide uses a lot of LEDs. Its 37-inch DR37-P model has approximately 1,400 of them. That’s enough to get pretty specific about which areas are bight and which are dark. You can think of it as a low-resolution display with 1400 pixels, sitting behind a high-resolution display of 2,073,600 pixels (a 1920-by-1080 LCD). But this doesn’t lead to light and dark splotches on the screen, because BrightSide can also tweak the LCD settings to further refine the image resolution. Say for example, you have a feature a few pixels wide that you want to make incredibly bright, and around it are details that are supposed to be dark or just medium bright. BrightSide’s driver technology can compensate for the intense LED backlight behind that area of the screen by closing down the pixels around the bright feature more than you normally would on a regular monitor with a constant backlight level. So, even with some light leaking through, they look a lot darker than the highlighted item. As I said, this really works. I’ve seen it.
So what’s the catch?
I’ll be buying a house before I buy this TV. The DR37-P lists for $49,000 and so far has sold in only limited quantities to film producers and designers. Oh, and it uses an obscene amount of electricity – up to 1680 Watts, depending on the video content. (A regular 37-inch LCD consumes about 200 Watts.) In fact, the panel needs a liquid cooling system to keep from melting.
However, a representative of BrightSide tells me they are working with an unnamed TV maker on a deal to produce a slightly less-bright and cooler model at a “significant reduction in price.” The screen size will probably be somewhere between 37 and 50 inches.