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How LCoS Works


by Tracy V. Wilson

Most people grew up watching a cathode ray tube (CRT) television. These televisions, while bulky
and heavy, had a great picture as long as they got a clear signal. CRT sets are still what a lot of
people think of when they think of TVs.

Photo courtesy JVC


An LCoS microdevice

But if you've shopped around for a TV recently, you've seen that now there are a lot more options.
CRT still works well for screen sizes up to 40 inches. But if you want a larger screen, a flat panel TV,
widescreen model or HDTV compatibility, you'll have to choose from several types of sets, including
liquid crystal display (LCD), digital light processing (DLP) and liquid crystal over silicon (LCoS).

LCoS isn't particularly new technology, but it wasn't readily available until recently. In this article, we'll
look at the technology behind LCoS, how it provides a clear picture and how manufacturers have
addressed issues with black levels and contrast.

Thank You
Thanks to Daniel Guzman for his
assistance with this article.

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Review of LCD and DLP


The most common use for LCoS is front- and rear-projection televisions. The setup is a lot like what
you find in a DLP system. DLP uses a digital micromirror device (DMD) to create a picture using a
process that's like making a mosaic out of small, square tiles. The DMD contains millions of
microscopic mirrors that reflect light from a lamp. Each mirror creates one pixel of the final image.

Photo courtesy Texas Instruments


A DLP system using one DMD and a color wheel to provide color.

The mirrors flip back and forth between their "on" and "off" positions very rapidly. When mirrors are
on, they point toward a projection lens. The longer a mirror is in the on position, the brighter the pixel
it creates. Mirrors creating black pixels remain off. In most DLP televisions, a color wheel spins
between the lamp and the DMD, adding red, green and blue light to the picture. The viewer's eyes
combine these colors to create the finished image.

LCoS uses a very similar idea. As with DMDs, LCoS devices are tiny -- most are less than one inch
square. Both technologies are also reflective -- the devices reflect light from a source to a lens or
prism that collects the light and displays the image. But instead of tiny mirrors that turn on and off,
LCoS uses liquid crystals to control the amount of reflected light.

A liquid crystal is a substance that is in mesomorphic state -- it's not exactly a liquid or a solid. Its
molecules usually hold their shape, like a solid, but they can also move around, like a liquid. Nematic
liquid crystals, for example, arrange themselves in loose parallel lines. Most LCDs use twisted
nematic (TN) crystals -- with the application of an electrical charge, the twisted crystals straighten out.

When placed between two polarized panels, the twisted crystals guide the path of light. By changing
the direction of the light, the crystals allow or prevent its passage through the second panel. The
crystals' ability to change the path of the light is central to its use in LCDs and LCoS systems.

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In their twisted state, liquid crystals direct the light


so it can pass through the second polarized panel.

Ferroelectric liquid crystals (FLCs), sometimes used in LCoS devices, are crystals which align
themselves at a fixed angle away from the normal into orderly rows. They also develop electrical
polarity when they come into contact with an electrical charge. Ferroelectric chiral smectic C crystals
can switch their orientation very quickly. You can learn more about smectic and nematic liquid crystals
at Kent State University's Liquid Crystal Institute.

The liquid crystal layer in an LCoS microdevice controls the amount of light for each pixel, like the
mirrors do in a DMD. But making the picture requires more than just the microdevice -- it also requires
lenses, mirrors and prisms.

One More Quick Review: Semiconductors


Silicon is a semiconductor. Semiconductors are used in diodes,
which allow current to move in only one direction, and
transistors, which either amplify currents or switch them on and
off. The silicon in an LCoS device is often SRAM (Static Random
Access Memory) or a CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide
Semiconductor) photo sensor.

Projection and Color


It takes several steps to create a picture in an LCoS television. The process includes a high-intensity
lamp, a series of mirrors and microdevices arranged into a cube, a prism and a projection lens. From
beginning to end, here's what happens:

1. The lamp creates a beam of white light.


2. The beam passes through a condenser lens that focuses and directs the light. It also passes
through a filter that only allows visible light, which helps protect the other components.
3. The white light is separated into red, green and blue light in one of two ways:
a. The beam passes through a polarizing beam splitter (PBS), which divides the light into
three beams, and those beams pass through filters that add red, green and blue.
b. The beam passes through a series of dichroic mirrors that reflect some wavelengths
while allowing the rest of the light to pass through. For example, the dichroic mirror can
separate red light from the white light, leaving blue and green, and a second mirror can

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separate the green light, leaving only blue.


4. The newly created beams of colored light simultaneously come into contact with one of three
LCoS microdevices - one each for red, green and blue. We'll look at exactly what happens in
the devices in the next section.
5. The reflected light from the microdevices passes through a prism that combines the light.
6. Prism directs the light - which now creates a full-color image - into a projection lens, which
magnifies the image and displays it on the screen.

In LCoS projection, light from a lamp reflects off of the microdevices and is
eventually projected through a lens.

Most rear-projection LCoS televisions use this process. Some projectors use a linear setup rather
than a cube, and the white light strikes surfaces that color it red, green and blue before reaching the
microdevices. A very few systems use only one microdevice along with other methods for adding
color. Some examples are color wheels like those found in DLP systems or transmissive dyes on the
microdevices themselves. Some systems use additional polarizers or filters to further improve picture
quality and contrast.

Without the projection lens, the picture created in this process would be too small to see clearly.
That's why LCoS technology falls into the category of microdisplays -- displays that are too small to
see without some kind of magnification.

The SXRD Iris


Sony's SXRD (Silicon X-tal
Reflective Display) -- their
brand name for LCoS -- uses
an "advanced iris" to improve
black levels. Like the pupil of

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your eye, the iris opens and


closes to change the amount
of light that enters the system.
Sony was the first
manufacturer to include an
iris, and several other
manufacturers are
incorporating similar
equipment in sets to be
released in 2006.

Photo courtesy Audioholics

The LCoS Microdevice


Instead of using liquid crystal between two polarized panels like an LCD, an LCoS microdevice has a
liquid crystal layer between one transparent thin-film transistor (TFT) and one silicon
semiconductor. The semiconductor has a reflective, pixilated surface. The lamp shines light through
a polarizing filter and onto the device, and the liquid crystals act like gates or valves, controlling the
amount of light that reaches the reflective surface. The more voltage a particular pixel's crystal
receives, the more light the crystal allows to pass. It takes several layers of different materials to do
this.

From the bottom to the top, here are the components of an LCoS microdevice and what they do:

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z Printed circuit board (PCB): carries instructions and electricity from the television to the
device
z Silicon (a chip or sensor): controls the liquid crystal, generally with one transistor per pixel,
using data from the television's pixel drivers
z Reflective coating: reflects light to create a picture
z Liquid crystal: controls the amount of light that reaches and leaves the reflective coating
z Alignment layer: keeps the liquid crystals properly aligned so they can direct the light
accurately
z Transparent electrode: completes the circuit with the silicon and the liquid crystal
z Glass cover: Protects and seals the system

The exact materials and configurations differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some use nematic
liquid crystals and others use ferroelectric crystals. Some use organic alignment layers, which can
break down through use and exposure to the high-intensity light from the lamp. Others use
photosensitive materials and light to control the impulses to the liquid crystal.

The orientation of the crystals relative to the reflective surface


changes in the presence of an electric current. Most are nearly
perpendicular when off and are angled when on.

In general, LCoS devices have only a very small gap between pixels. The pixel pitch -- the horizontal
distance between one pixel and the next pixel of the same color -- is between 8 and 20 microns (10-
6). This reduces or eliminates the "screen door" effect found on some DLP televisions and helps keep
the image smooth and uniform.

The system generally creates a good picture, but it does have some pros and cons. We'll look at
those next.

Pixels
Many LCoS televisions have SXGA (Super Extended Graphics
Array) + or better resolution. That's 1400 x 1050 pixels, for a total
of 1.4 million. QXGA (Quantum Extended Graphic Array) sets

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have even more pixels -- 2048 x 1536, for a total of 2.3 million.

Pros and Cons


The physical properties of the LCoS microdevice, like the absence
of a color wheel and the high fill factor, generally provide a high-
quality picture with a minimum of artifacts. LCoS pixels are also
smoother than the pixels of other systems, which some people say
creates more natural pictures. The rainbow and screen door effects
common to DLP televisions don't exist for LCoS. Unlike LCD
systems, they're not prone to screen burn-in.

However, most LCoS systems don't have a very good black level, or
ability to produce the color black. Televisions with poor black level Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper
generally can't produce as much contrast or detail as those with JVC Multimedia projector
good black level. Since LCoS televisions and projectors use three
microdevices instead of one, they also tend to be heavy and bulky. Most require periodic lamp
replacement, which can cost several hundred dollars.

In addition, LCoS systems aren't as common as other display types. The reason for this is that LCoS
microdevices are difficult to manufacture, and each set needs three of them. Several companies,
including Intel, have tried to produce LCoS systems and have abandoned their efforts after
consistently low yields in manufacturing.

Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper


Sony SXRD TV

Check out the links on the next page for lots more information on liquid crystals, televisions and
related topics.

Other Uses of LCoS


LCoS has other uses besides televisions and projectors. For
example, some digital camera viewfinders use LCoS displays.
Future applications for the technology include:

z Near-to-eye viewing systems, including head-mounted


displays
z Optical beam steering
z Micro-projectors
z Holographic projection and storage

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Lots More Information


Related HowStuffWorks Articles
z How LCDs Work
z How Television Works
z How DLP Sets Work
z How Light Works
z How Sunglasses Work
z TV Buying Guide
z How Semiconductors Work
z How RAM Works
z How Digital Cameras Work
z How Solar Cells Work
z How Light Emitting Diodes WorkHow OLEDs Work

More Great Links

z JVC: HD-ILA
z Hitachi: LCOS
z Sony: SXRD
z The Microdisplay Page
z TFCG Microdisplay Research

Sources

z Carnoy, David. "LCoS HDTV's Bumpy Ride into the Living Room." CNET, October 15, 2004.
http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-8900_7-5540515-1.html
z Cuypers, D., et al. "Assembly of an XGA 0.9" LCoS Display using Inorganic Alignment Layers."
ELIS Dept., Kent University, 2002.
http://www.elis.ugent.be/ELISgroups/tfcg/publi/eurodisplay2002_p-45.pdf
z DeBoer, Clint. "Display Technologies Guide." Audioholics, February 9, 2004.
http://www.audioholics.com/techtips/specsformats/displays_LCD_DLP_plasma1.html
z "Device Future." JVC-Victor, 2004.
http://www.jvc-victor.co.jp/english/pro/dila/device.html
z "D-ILA Projector Technology: The Path to High Resolution Projection Displays." JVC, 2004.
http://pro.jvc.com/pro/pr/2004/press_releases/D-ILA_mini_white_paper.pdf
z "High Quality Picture Realized by Original LCOS." JVC-Victor, 2003.
http://www.jvc-victor.co.jp/english/candd/dila/dila03r.html
z "How LCoS Displays Work" Digital Home.
http://www.digitalhomemag.com/features/default.asp?pagetypeid=2
&articleid=29275&subsectionid=1300&subsubsectionid=935
z Huang, H.C. "Color Filter Liquid-Crystal-on-Silicon Displays." Center for Display Research, 2005.
http://www.cdr.ust.hk/publications/research_pub/2005/p_151.pdf
z "LCoS." The Projector Pros.
http://www.theprojectorpros.com/learn.php?s=learn&p=technologies_lcos
z "LCOS Overview." Microdisplay, 2005.
http://www.microdisplay.com/?a=technology
z "Liquid Crystal on Silicon Devices." BOSLab Research Group, Kent State University.
http://www.lci.kent.edu/boslab/projects/lcos/
z "Microdisplays with Near Photographic Image Quality." Brillian Corporation, 2005.
http://www.brilliancorp.com/products/technology.html
z Powell, Evan. "What's so hot about LCOS Technology?" Projector Central, July 18, 2003.
http://www.projectorcentral.com/lcos.htm
z "ProFlux PBS with LCOS." ProFlux, May 20, 2002.

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Howstuffworks "How LCoS Works" Page 9 of 9

http://www.profluxpolarizer.com/pdf/_LCOSAPPN%20MAY%202002.PDF
z The Projector Buyer's Guide. Hardware Zone.
http://www.hardwarezone.com/microsite/buyers_guide/projectors/lcos.shtml
z "Rear Projection TV Types." CNET, August 4, 2005.
http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6463_7-5023901-4.html
z Serati, Steven and Jay Stockley. "Advanced Liquid Crystal on Silicon Optical Phased Arrays." IEEE,
2002.
http://www.bnonlinear.com/papers/LCbeamSteer/Advanced%20liquid%20
crystal%20on%20silicon%20optical%20phased%20arrays.pdf
z "Sony Updates LCOS Microdisplay Technology." Insight Media, March 17, 2003.
http://www.insightmedia.info/news/SonyUpdatesLCOSMicrodisplayTechnology.htm
z SpaciaLight
http://www.spatialight.com/
z US Patent & Trademark Office, Patents 5,283,676: Liquid Crystal Light Valve.
http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=/netahtml/
search-bool.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&co1=AND&d=ptxt&s1=5,283,676.WKU.&OS=PN/5,283,676&RS=
PN/5,283,676
z Van Dorselaer, G., et al. "XGA VAN-LCoS Projector." ELIS Dept., Kent University, Belgium, 2002.
http://www.elis.ugent.be/ELISgroups/tfcg/publi/eurodisplay2002_s11-3.pdf.
z Wilkinson, Tim. "Liquid Crystal over Silicon Microdisplays (Construction)." Photonics and Sensors
Group, Cambridge University.
http://www-g.eng.cam.ac.uk/photonics/microd/indexp4.htm

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http://www.howstuffworks.com/lcos.htm/printable 1/15/2006