LG has announced it will no longer make plasma displays, essentially marking the end of an era.
With no more major manufacturers outputting plasma displays, many reports and analysts have claimed the technology is now dead. After four decades of ups and downs and innovations, it seems plasma displays are just another victim of out-with-old, in-with-the-new mindset.
Plasma displays have many advantages and are even more affordable than current LCD screens, but that still hasn't been enough to curb public perception and boost sales. So, in memory of plasma, we've rounded up a brief history, complete with hallmark moments, of the technology.
What is a plasma display?
A plasma display is a flat-panel display once-commonly used for televisions 30 inches in size or larger. Plasma displays are thinner than cathode ray tube displays, a technology used in the first commercially-made electronic television sets.
Plasma displays are classed plasma because each pixel in the screen is illuminated by a tiny bit of plasma. When an electrode applies an electrical current to a small cell filled with a noble gas mixture (like neon and xenon), it excites the gas, then ionizes it, and transforms it into a plasma.
The plasma then emits ultraviolet light, and once that light hits the phosphor coating lining each cell, it causes the phosphor to glow a visible light. Just think of of each individual subpixel on a plasma display as a tiny neon light or florescent tube. The technology is the same, just on a smaller scale.
What's the picture-quality like?
Plasma displays have been known to boast better black levels than many LCD screens, although LCD technology has greatly improved in recent years. Pricier LED-backlit LCD screens with local dimming, for instance, have black levels comparable to those of plasma displays.
Due to how plasma displays work, they can provide precise control of the relative level of brightness and intensity for red, blue, and green subpixels. The displays therefore have deep contrast, textured images, and rich colours. Due to the lack of polarising filters, they have good viewing angles too.
Another advantage is that the florescent phosphor coating lining each subpixel can stop glowing within nanoseconds, eliminating a problem known as motion blur. Pixels in lower-end LCD screens cannot shutter or close as fast, meaning they have poor refresh rates, which results in motion blur.
Burn-in was a problem often associated with early plasma displays, but it can still occur today. It happens when the same picture is displayed for long periods. If something bright is shown on a plasma display for too long (such as a network logo), it could leave a visible-yet-faint image behind.
Plasma displays are also known for their large energy consumption, especially compared to, for instance, an LED-backlit LCD screen. And despite all that energy waste, plasma displays, which are highly glossy and reflective, sometimes don't shine as bright as new LED or CCFL-backlit LCD screens.
When did the first plasma display come out?
Kalman Tihanyi, a Hungarian engineer, developed the first flat-panel display system in 1963, and about one year later, a monochrome plasma display was invented and presented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the PLATO Computer System.
Manufacturers like Ownes-Illinois and Burroughs Corporation made plasma displays, which were known for their neon orange and monochrome look, throughout the 1970s. IBM then popped into the plasma scene in 1983, when it introduced a 19-inch orange-on-black monochrome display.
The 1990s saw the emergence of full-colour plasma displays. Fujitsu demonstrated a 21-inch hybrid display in 1992 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and then three years later, it introduced the first 42-inch plasma display with a 852x480 resolution.
Philips followed Fujitsu’s footprint and came out with a plasma display of the same resolution in 1997. It was marketed with a steep price tag of $14,999. That same year, Pioneer entered the market of making and selling plasma displays. And the rest is history.
What were some of the biggest plasma displays to be made?
Many companies began manufacturing plasma displays in different sizes in the early 2000s.
Panasonic showed off a 103-inch plasma display panel at CES 2006. The display had 1080p HDTV resolution and was the world’s largest plasma display at that time, edging narrowly ahead of the 102-inch Samsung plasma display shown off the previous year.
Panasonic (then called Matsushita Electric Industrial) made jaws drop again in 2008, when it showed off a 150-inch set at CES 2008. The display stood 6-ft tall by 11-ft wide. By this time however, plasma displays had peaked in popularity and were steadily losing ground to LCD screens.
Nonetheless, Panasonic once again stole the show floor at CES when it debuted a 152-inch plasma television that had 4K resolution and 3D technology. The television set cost well-over $500,000 when it launched.
Which companies made plasma displays?
There have been many plasma display manufacturers over the last few decades, but the following were known for their world-class displays: Panasonic, Pioneer, Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Sanyo, Magnavox, Sony, Vizio, LG, and Hitachi.
Why and when did plasma displays start to disappear?
Following years of declining sales, Pioneer announced in 2009 that it would exit the television business.
The company sold many of its Kuro-branded plasma technology patents to Panasonic, one of the last remaining manufacturers concentrating on plasma displays. That said, Panasonic eventually ended sales of plasma displays in March 2014.
The Consumer Electronics Association revealed in 2013 that Americans spent $2.15 billion on 2.98 million plasma displays in 2012. In comparison, during that same year, Americans spent about $16.8 billion on about 36.2 million LCD screens.
It’s not clear why Americans (and the rest of the world, for that matter) drifted away from plasma displays. The technology, which was once expensive, was more affordable than many LCD screens on the market.
Some reports have claimed that LCD is widely perceived by consumers as being both better and newer than plasma. Perhaps it's because LCD screens tend to appear brighter and don’t have burn-in issues. They also use less electricity, a growing concern for budget-conscious and green shoppers.
Although the 2013 report from the Consumer Electronics Association forecasted that Americans would buy 1.33 million plasma displays for a total of $923 million in 2015, that amount most likely wasn't (and isn't) enough for television manufacturers to continue investing in the technology.
Are plasma displays dead?
On 29 October 2014, LG announced it would stop producing plasma display panels from 30 November.
LG's withdrawal from plasma display means there are no major suppliers making plasma displays. The company first started manufacturing plasma displays in 1999, four years after Fujitsu made the first commercially available television using the technology. It is the last major manufacturer to withdraw from the market, following earlier moves by Panasonic and Pioneer.
Chinese firm Changhong Electric Co will now be the only plasma display maker left in existence, but it is unclear how many of its displays will end up in televisions outside of China. Analysts believe that there will be no more plasma displays by 2017.