WisBusiness: Innovation in television industry continues with LED screen backlighting

By Michael Felling

For WisBusiness.com

The ritual of watching TV has improved over the years as technology has helped transform TVs from black-and-white, snowy screens with “rabbit ears” for reception to big-screened liquid crystal displays with high definition capability. FLEx, a Chicago-based company with hopes of moving to Wisconsin, is looking to improve on that technology while keeping prices low.

All LCD TVs are equipped with a backlight to illuminate the pixels of the screen, which provides a clear, sharp picture. Television manufacturers have used fluorescent bulbs for that backlighting over time, but are switching to LED-based backlighting (light-emitting diode) to provide longer bulb life, richer colors and mercury-free components.

But LED-based lighting comes at a cost. The new method required hundreds and even thousands of LEDs to light the screen, which can cost up to five times as much as the original fluorescent lights.

Technology developed by FLEx aims to lower costs without sacrificing picture quality. The company’s founders, Mike Casper, Tony Nichol and Shawn Pucylowski, have created a new film-based light-guide technology for LCD TVs that will require only four LEDs.

Pucylowski explained: “We use a polymer film and an injection-molded plastic, which allows for more efficient light capture when placed next to an LED.”

The standard LED components used in LCDs cost an average of $450 for a 42-inch TV. FLEx’s new component however, will reduce that cost to $250 for the same 42-inch big screen, allowing TV manufacturers to keep prices low.

“We believe the FLEx backlight will allow TV companies to provide the same value at a cost-competitive price to the consumer while maintaining a profit margin for the TV industry,” Pucylowski said.

Even as the economy sags, LED-based TV sales are expected to rise to 45 million annually within the next five years.

“Current market projections within the TV industry estimate that one in four 4 TVs will have LED backlights by the year 2013,” Pucylowski said. “TV manufacturers have already begun switching over to LED backlight technology for a myriad of value-adding reasons.”

The FLEx lighting method also emits a superior picture compared to other LED-based components. The FLEx backlight reduces the amount of “edge” seen on the screen, resulting in an improved color mixing method while creating an “edge-less” picture.

“Because it has three LEDs (red, green and blue) versus a white LED, TVs will be able to control the intensity of the different LEDs. Thus, the consumer enjoys a crisper color to the picture,” Pucylowski said.

FLEx has advanced into the top 21 companies in the 2009 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

“We entered because we want to see Wisconsin technology companies grow,” said Pucylowski.

So how long will it be until consumers can get their hands on a FLEx lighting-based LCD TV set? FLEx President Mike Casper said the company is engaged in discussions to license the technology to major LCD TV manufacturers, backlight unit manufacturers and contract design manufacturers.

“FLEx has created a 20-inch LCD TV and is currently working on a development project to create the world’s first 42-inch LCD TV with only four LED chipsets,” Pucylowski said.

No “rabbit ears” required.

— Felling is a student in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the UW-Madison.

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