Memo To Architects

Selecting the “Best” Display Technology For Your Design


by Alan C. Brawn

When is a picture truly worth a thousand words?

When it makes a person speechless.

Once in a while, display products come into the market that truly astound. Before examining some of these exciting breakthroughs, let’s look at a typical high-end application requiring large-screen displays. The application is a beautiful boardroom of a Fortune 500 company. Leather chairs surround a granite-topped conference table and are the same hue as the room’s wood-paneled walls. The arched ceiling is a work of art, accentuated by the artwork on the walls that rivals the finest galleries around the world.

The design concept is straightforward: Create an environment that portrays power, authority, and feeling that says to anyone in the room, “I’ve arrived.”

The picture is complete except for one thing: The client needs a large-screen display. Enter the AV contractor and his “solution” to the problem. He says to the architect, “Let’s hang a projector from the ceiling and install a “nice” front projection screen that comes down out of the ceiling.”

No way.

The contractor has another “solution.” He suggests a rear-screen cabinet located at one end of the room but promptly learns that there is not enough room for the installation, not to mention that it also ruins the look and feel that the architect wanted.

Can the design integrity be maintained while satisfying the need for high-tech communications?

Yes, by using flat panel display technology. A plasma, LCD, or even a thin-profile DLP screen are big enough for all but the largest boardrooms and they are only 3-1/2 inches to less than 12 inches thick. Their bezels can be covered to match the walls, designed to come up out of a credenza, or they can be inset into a wall or reside in the room with changing artwork, a corporate message, or even a virtual aquarium displayed on them when not in use.

They can be placed singularly, or in multiples, in a lobby to deliver the corporate message to all who visit. In the case of plasma and LCD displays, they can appear as an image suspended in mid-air with a viewing angle of over 170 degrees and a picture quality rivaling the finest movie theater. They scream impact!

Image Quality
Just as the mantra in real estate is “location, location, location,” the mantra in the world of displays is “image quality, image quality, image quality.” In this regard, 35mm film is the “holy grail” of moving pictures. People need a common point of reference to understand high quality, and for more than 100 years the picture on the big screen has been revered as the best.

Second only to film in terms of ultimate video quality is the venerable CRT television we all grew up with. While there are some CRT monitor/television-based installations out there, these are rapidly being replaced by flat panel technologies. The reason for the decline of the CRT is fundamental to the design of the technology: They’re bulky with limited input capabilities that are not very bright and rapidly decay in image quality with everyday use.

Next in the line in picture quality is the plasma display because it most closely replicates the rich appearance and impact of the film and CRT video viewing experience. Being a digital technology, plasma displays can also be used to show continuously moving computer-generated images with text and computer-aided design in a larger and more viewable format. Plasma displays come in numerous sizes but typically in 42-inch and 50/55-inch versions at resolutions of 852x480 at the entry level and going up to 1366x768 on the larger displays. Recently, larger plasma displays have entered the market with 61, 63, 70, and 80 inches. Significant improvements have been made in plasma display technology in terms of brightness, contrast, networkability, and cost of ownership. Bottom line: If you use mostly full-motion, wide-screen video or continuously moving computer text and graphics, then consider plasma in your applications.

Although, by most accounts, still not as “film like” in terms of picture quality as plasma, LCD represents a viable alternative to other technologies and provides a “digital look” that some prefer to plasma. Most LCD advocates will promote the crisp/sharp images on an LCD over the soft/film-like images of plasma. Inherent in the design of LCD panels is the ability to display text with the most clarity and definition of any of the most commonly available display technologies today. This makes it ideal for applications requiring static images. LCD displays are getting larger, currently coming in 30-, 32-, 37-, 40-, and 46-inch diagonal sizes with 55 inches and even a 65 inch in 2005.

Like plasma, LCD technology has seen many improvements over the last 2 years, the most notable of which is improved contrast and the availability of faster panels below 16 milliseconds response time, permitting a much improved video picture. Bottom line: If you use mostly static text and graphics with some full-motion video in any application - especially 24/7/365 - then use large-panel LCD.

The Clarity Margay is a 50-inch rear-projection display that combines the best features of direct-view and rear-projection technology. It uses DLP™ technology to deliver high color performance and brightness in a zero mullion, high-definition format that is ideal for creating large signage and video walls.

Design Caveats
There are some design caveats to consider in both LCD and plasma when making your final selection. Be aware that several plasma and LCD manufacturers are incorporating what is known as an “open architecture” design. This permits modules to be changed out in the connectivity panel of the display, facilitating the integration into a total system approach.

With plasma, you are typically limited in most models to performance at altitudes of 6,000 feet or below. In addition, if an image on the screen remains static or not in motion for extended lengths of time, the plasma technology may “burn in” and retain the static image on the screen. Most manufacturers provide anti-burn technologies to reduce this effect, but it is still a factor to consider. There is a new technology in the plasma arena called Zero Burn™ that claims to eliminate the burn-in effect.

Last but not least is panel life. In previous versions of plasma technology the life cycle of the panel was in question. Most plasma displays had a “claimed” lifetime of 30,000 hours if properly set up, but new panels from manufacturers like Samsung, Pioneer, Panasonic, Hitachi, and LG are now providing 50,000-hour panel life estimates. Panel life should be a consideration in life-cycle cost.

With LCD displays, the panel size limitations are currently 40- and 45/46-inch diagonal with a few larger sizes coming. LCD displays also have an advantage in higher altitude applications and may be acceptable for lower temperature environments in outdoor projects. Beware that though many LCD manufacturers have improved their panel response times, some displays still have a slower response time and may not provide the most dynamic replication of video signals. Finally, LCD flat panel displays are about twice as expensive in size-for-size comparisons with plasma displays but last about 60,000 hours, at which time the lamp in the display can be replaced, making life-cycle cost an advantage.

A growing category of displays is the rear screen “cube” design with LCD or more recently DLP chips providing the imaging engine. The new designs typically come in 50- and 61-inch configurations with customized designs up to 84- or even 100-inch diagonal. The newest designs come in what is called a thin profile configuration, and a 61-inch display is less than 20 inches deep. There are two major benefits to the cube designs:

  1. Most cubes are available in a zero mullion configuration and can be placed side by side and mounted on top of each other in huge video walls, providing nearly seamless images and eliminating the comparatively thick bezels of plasma and LCD flat panels.

  2. The DLP or LCD cubes do not typically burn in and retain static images.

From a maintenance standpoint, they do require lamp replacements at approximately 5,000 to 6,000 hours. Lamp cost is approximately $500 per lamp and it will take an hour of labor to replace it. This must be taken into consideration in the total cost of ownership equation, but when cubes are properly maintained they have a nearly unlimited lifespan. Finally, the cubes are similar in price to the largest plasma and LCD displays, but consumer RP televisions can be used, and these are much less expensive than the commercial cubes.

No display article would be complete without a view into the crystal ball of future developments. In terms of plasma displays, we have just seen the first technology demonstrations of a 102-inch plasma display from Samsung, due out “sometime” in 2006, with a native resolution of 1920x1080.

On the LCD front, we will see displays up to 65 inches in the coming months. An 80-inch panel was displayed to the public early in 2005 with a resolution of 1900x1200 native. It is expected that prices will decline slightly for the sub-40-inch LCD but will still be higher than comparable plasmas of the same size. The newest design DLP cubes will feature a super thin design of less than 10 inches for a 50-inch display, making them a legitimate competitor to the true flat panel displays as we move forward.

The good news for architects and interior designers is that large-screen displays can be blended into your designs without violating the artistic and ergonomic principals that guided you in the beginning, all the while meeting the communications needs of the new millennium. .


Alan Brawn is a principal of Brawn Consulting, a Pro AV educational development company, and a consultant to Cisco, Telanetix, DynaTek Media, and Visual Appliances, the inventor of Zero Burn™ plasma technology. He was formerly president of Telanetix and senior manager of business development and national product marketing manager, Pro AV Group, Samsung Electronics America. He was a founding member of Hughes-JVC.


The Samsung PPM63H3Q is a 63-inch plasma. It is one of the largest plasma displays currently available with a resolution of 1366x768.