Flat TV, big price

LAS VEGAS -- If you think a high-definition, wide-screen digital TV is about the best way there is to watch old episodes of "The Simpsons," Philips Electronics North America Corp. would like to show you something: FlatTV, its 42-inch flat-panel display that hangs from your wall, as they say, "like a painting.

LAS VEGAS -- If you think a high-definition, wide-screen digital TV is about the best way there is to watch old episodes of "The Simpsons," Philips Electronics North America Corp. would like to show you something: FlatTV, its 42-inch flat-panel display that hangs from your wall, as they say, "like a painting."

It comes with a built-in Dolby ProLogic sound system, with complimentary subwoofer and two rear satellite speakers. And all this for a mere $15,000.

"Well, this is really aimed at enthusiasts," explained Michael Leese, VP of Philips' aptly-named Super Large Display TV division, at the Consumer Electronics Show this week in Las Vegas. "Between you and me, we're thinking maybe some of these sports figures might like one." Philips also envisions commercial uses in large corporations and airports.

Almost every TV maker showed some kind of flat-panel product at CES, but only a handful plan to bring them to market early this year. And FlatTV is one of the first flat displays to be optimized for home entertainment rather than for computer displays.

FlatTVs will be available -- for whoever can afford them -- this spring, and Philips has already distributed a handful to retailers in the U.S. and Europe for demonstrations. And despite their distance from the mass market, Philips has started running broadcast TV ads touting FlatTV as the status symbol for the 1990s and beyond.

"We're aiming for a new image for the company," Leese said. "Philips is a huge brand globally, but people in the U.S. don't really recognize it. Products like FlatTV will plant Philips as a sizable and leading brand in the U.S. market."

FlatTV uses technology from Fujitsu, but Philips, along with Sony and Sharp, are also investing in another flat-panel technology that is, if anything, more futuristic than the plasma LCD utilized in Philips' product.

Sharp demonstrated a prototype of the plasma-addressed liquid crystal display (PALC) at CES. PALC, with a picture that Sharp says beats other LCD technologies, was invented by Tektronics and later licensed to Sony, Sharp and Philips, who are now trying to figure out how to manufacture the screens in large numbers. Sharp hopes to bring the first PALC displays to market in mid-1999, according to David Blass of Sharp's Microelectronics Group.

The hope is that PALC will eventually make it possible to offer a flat-panel display with better picture and at lower prices than is possible with other LCD or plasma technologies, Blass said.

The trio investing in PALC research believe the technology gets around some of the problems of plasma displays, such as latent images and phosphor burn-in, and the size restrictions on LCDs, by combining elements of both methods.

Instead of the transistors assigned to each pixel in an LCD, PALC uses plasma to act as a transistor, turning each pixel on or off. The result, Blass said, is a display that's "just like an active-matrix laptop display."

Will flat-panel displays be the wave of the future, replacing even digital, high-definition CRTs? While it waits to find out, Sharp, and most other TV-makers, are offering every kind of high-end device they can.

"It's kind of a horse race to see which technology will win," said Blass. "And here we always try to put our money on as many horses as possible."