by Matthew Ward

A: History is about vectors. Bringing a point of view to a subject. But this point of view is often too narrow to accurately characterize a specific period of time in much the way the “Great Man” theory of history turned out to be a poor indicator of what actually happened, how it happened, who did it, and the role of luck and privilege in the whatever event is being chronicled. Everything happens in a context and a slight change in perspective can deliver a very different story.

B: So, my dude, what does this have to do with stacking televisions?

A: I think that oversimplifies things a bit. We will discuss “stacking televisions” but we will approach the topic from a number of different angles. You could look at this as a complementary modular approach to the history of modular display.


A. Yes. Jumbotron.


A. One way to look at that is as part of the arc of cathode ray tube development but you can also just look at it as part of the history of branding. Jumbotron is Sony’s proprietary name for a specific large format outdoor display and the name was probably more successful than the product.

B. And you can fix it with a tennis ball on the end of a stick!

A. And what else can we fix with a tennis ball on the end of a stick?


A: So you are ready to learn the history of modular display?

I always picture this as a conversation. One of the most interesting aspects of this business has been the social aspect of it. The idea that at a certain point in time we were all dealing with the same not entirely fully-baked products because we were part of this industry. You and I may have arrived at this point in our lives along different paths. But right now it is 01:00 AM and we are both starring at a piece of equipment that is not behaving the way it usually behaves and someone back at the factory is telling us that “they have never seen it do that before”.

How many ways are there to dice up the modular display market?

The first step is to look at the core display TECHNOLOGY. But how do you categorize technology? What process is creating the image we are seeing? A display tends to be Emissive, Transmissive, or Reflective.

  • Emissive displays include CRT, Plasma, laser, LED, OLED. All of these technologies generate light that can be controlled as a pixel at the light source. Electricity is converted into light that is seen by a viewer.
  • Transmissive displays include Liquid Crystal and Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) shutters and are often described as “light valves”. A transmissive display will always be paired with a light source with the display between the light source and a viewer.
  • Reflective displays utilize mechanical and MEMS systems, bi-stable, transflective technologies in combination with a secondary light source oriented in such a way that the desired light is reflected towards a viewer.

The hardware is used across a wide range of APPLICATIONS including touring, live events, exhibitions, art installations, control rooms, laboratories, and corporate lobbies. The product that is used in an install is often different from the product used on an event. There is cost associated with the flexibility required in the rental & staging market that is typically stripped out from products intended for the installation market.

The next step is to look at the mechanical FORM of the various elements in the system. Are there rules that follow across technologies? Are there material and process advances that allow for new forms that were previously impractical? Can we make generalizations? And what about the nature of the emergent display technologies opened up opportunities that could not have been used effectively in legacy technology platforms?

The DATA architecture of the system is clearly important. Video wall systems largely revolved around processors that drove individual display modules for a big chunk of history. Processing has a cost and distributing it was expensive. But now most LCD and LED systems are capable of some degree of internal data distribution. So there has been an optimization around an approach that simplifies physical cabling and reduces overall cost. But that does not work for all systems. So what are the rules of system topology?

Displays are generally judged on how they perform for an average set of human eyes. RESOLUTION is a critical factor here as the ability of the viewer to homogenize the separate pixels and sub-pixels into a coherent image is a major factor in the evaluation of a display.

HEAT is the enemy of performance in LED systems. The thermal performance of the LED system impacts product lifetime and subjective display performance. There is obvious color shift in an LED Display Module where the dissipation of heat is even during calibration and irregular when the display cannot effectively dissipate that heat evenly. This is often visible as bleached highlights at the edges of daylight LED modules.

The application ENVIRONMENT certainly impacts the design of a modular product. The need to manage environmental concerns such as water and salt has a significant impact not just on the design of a product but on the design and manufacturing process since tests must be designed to validate the environmental protections. The thermal requirements of denser indoor displays are an equally important factor in the design of those displays.

A layer down in the stack and the word MODULAR comes up again. What is the supply chain? From a product development point of view the LCD stack or the OLED stack are closed INTEGRATED systems that must be manufactured in fabs by the largest display companies (LG, Samsung, AUO, BOE). These are the purchased as functional sub-assemblies to make finished displays that are primarily defined by the display characteristics of the purchased sub-assembly. This compares with the LED industry where an open MODULAR supply chain exists and the very smallest discreet components of a display can be purchased by anyone at all. This is true even though the parts are often the same in a sense. There are driver companies in the LCD business and driver companies in the LED business. So what is the difference? Displays that have a process engineering barrier to high yields tend to favor an INTEGRATED supply chain that scales with the market.

What is the impact of the INDIVIDUAL on the industry and on the products and the evolution of the market? Early in the development and adoption process there are certainly parts of this industry that favor individualism and personal vision. Product segments don’t really define themselves. As Edna Mode says “luck favors the prepared”.

What about DESIGNERS? There are clearly moments when the industry is dragged forward by the vision of a designer. And the acceptance of well managed risk on the part of a designer bringing a new product forward is a critical part of how this industry has evolved.

Can we look at the “author” of the product? Some of the products that arrived on the market are the result of a rigorous development process grounded in complete written specifications paired with established operational and manufacturing processes that are tied to testing programs. Products from Barco and Christie would tend to fall in this category. Other products are haphazard free-form affairs where an idea is rapidly moved from concept to prototype to show because some driving internal vision or external need is driving development. I think the first Element Labs products were more like this. Is something like that visible in the tree of modular display life?

The modular display business has been the world of beta hardware. Products manufactured at low volumes in comparison to other commercial or consumer hardware. The goal of this series is to put these products into a broader context that helps us understand what comes next.

This article is dedicated to John Rigney [1956 – 2020]. John was an iconoclast. One of the first people in the United States to rent LED hardware.