Army lab pushes flat-panel displays

The Army wants to speed the introduction of flat-panel displays into military IT systems by taking over a contract previously managed by DARPA

The Army wants to speed the introduction of flat-panel displays into military information technology systems by taking over a contract previously managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The Army Research Laboratory announced last month that it would partner with the U.S. Display Consortium (USDC), a public/private organization, to develop dual-use technologies that will benefit the military and private industry. The laboratory will oversee a contract previously managed by DARPA, which has struggled to build a domestic manufacturing base for computer displays.

More compact than typical computer monitors, flat-panel displays are ideal for military users, who often must contend with serious space constraints. But flat-panel displays are costly, which has limited the market for them and, consequently, the number of vendors offering such products, especially in the United States.

Although the Army Research Laboratory already has a displays program under way, contracts have typically been awarded to one company at a time, said Dave Morton, team leader for the lab's displays program. Therefore, the technology developed resided with that single company. If an industry organization does the work instead, all of its members can share the technology.

"It's just a much more efficient way to disseminate technical knowledge," Morton said. "The...contract [with USDC] guarantees there will be at least three sources of a given display technology."

Although the lab's focus on cutting-edge research and development is similar to that of DARPA, the Army work is tilted somewhat more to moving the technology toward deployment, which will be reflected in the contract.

"We are more or less convinced that the technologies the USDC is working on will be used by the Army and other services, so we need to get those to the point where they can be applied," Morton said.

USDC is working on a number of display technologies, according to Mike Ciesinski, the organization's president, although the focus currently is on micro displays and projection systems used in such tools as handheld computers and helmet-mounted displays. One innovation that is sparking a lot of interest is flexible displays, which use a plastic substrate instead of a rigid glass substrate and can be employed in "wearable" computer systems.

The Army is also interested in their potential use in portable command and control centers, where IT systems could literally be rolled up and carried from one site to another on the battlefield in a soldier's backpack.

"When we were looking for a new [government] partner and we examined the main interests of USDC members, it quickly became clear that their technologies would probably be used in the widest context by the Army," Ciesinski said. "Not only does it have soldiers and military platforms on the ground that use a wide range of command and control applications, but it also flies helicopters and other vehicles."

The Army lab took on the contract, along with $6.7 million in fiscal 2001 budget authority.

DARPA established the High Definition Systems program in 1989 as a way to develop information displays that would meet the military's needs. The Clinton administration later became concerned about the country's dependence on foreign display manufacturers and pushed for a dual-use program that would help develop U.S.-based manufacturing while still meeting the military's needs.

The National Flat Panel Display Initiative was launched in 1994. USDC was formed at the same time to promote supply chain projects for display technologies. Since then, it has funded more than 75 projects with a total value of more than $175 million.

But the DARPA program largely failed to make any headway against the overwhelming might of manufacturers in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Earlier this year, DARPA officials told USDC and others that it was axing the program.

"USDC's focus was on developing a [U.S.] display infrastructure, but it was developing it for an industry that doesn't exist," said Ross Young, president of consulting firm and market watcher DisplaySearch. "That was clearly not a useful mission, and it was not meeting the needs of the military. Now it can be more focused on meeting the Army's needs."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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Looking ahead

Officials at the U.S. Display Consortium and the Army Research Laboratory believe flat-panel displays can be used in numerous commercial and military applications, such as:

* Head-mounted micro displays — for industrial personnel and for military aviators and special forces personnel.

* Enhanced projection display systems — for home theaters and portable military command posts.

* Flexible display technology — for electronic books and portable devices for soldiers.

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