CES Dispatches: Sharp demos from a beleaguered company

Sharp is not a powerhouse electronics company.

It’s was reported this fall to be on the edge of bankruptcy. But even when financially healthy, it’s played second or third fiddle to first Sony and now Samsung.

But among the big electronics firms at the Consumer Electronics Show here in Las Vegas, it had some of the coolest technology on display.

One of the themes here at CES has been 4K TVs. Most of the major set makers and some of the smaller ones are showing off their new, ultra-high resolution sets.

Like its rivals, Sharp is demo-ing a full suite of 4K TVs in larger screen sizes. But the company also has on display an 85-inch 8K TV.

Yes, 8K. That means that it has twice number of vertical columns of pixels (and twice the number of horizontal rows of pixels) as 4K TVs. That gives 8K TVs four times the resolution of 4K TVs and a whopping 16 times the resolution of regular HD sets.

While 4K sets are impressive enough in their own right, Sharp’s 8K is amazing. Despite its large screen size, I had to get within an arm’s length to start seeing its individual pixels. Even on smaller 4K televisions, you can start seeing their individual pixels further away than that.

One of the things that Stephen Woo, one of Samsung’s division presidents, touted in his keynote address here was the company’s new prototype flexible OLED displays. These screens use a new type of technology that allows them to be manufactured on plastic rather than glass, allowing them to be bent and flexed like a playing card.

Disappointingly, though, Samsung didn’t have any flexible screens on display at its booth. Enter, again, Sharp. Sharp had two flexible OLEDs on display, both about the size of a playing card, running full-motion, full-color video. For someone like me who has long been dreaming of a smart device that I could retract from the side of a pen or roll up and throw in my pocket, it was neat to see the technology that might make it possible up close.

Still, both 8K TVs and flexible OLED screens are likely years away from mass market consumer products. So, it was exciting to see at Sharp’s booth demo’s of a technology that may be in consumers’ hands much sooner.

That technology is called Igzo. It’s new semiconductor process that uses a combination of indium, gallium, zinc and oxygen (thus the name) in place of silicon. Sharp has started to use it in LCD displays and touchscreen elements.

Igzo transistors can be made smaller than those made of silicon and can move electrons faster. As a result, Igzo screens can be made much more power efficient and Igzo touchscreens can be less susceptible to noise, allowing them to more accurately recognize when users touch them.One other property of Igzo is that an Igzo display can hold an image much longer than a silicon-based one before having to be refreshed.

According to Sharp, the power savings can be dramatic, in the neighborhood of 80 to 90 percent over standard display technologies. That could yield a smartphone that could last two days of typical use before having its battery run out — about double the life of today’s best smartphones.

And the smaller transistors can make for smaller pixels, leading to dramatically higher resolution screens. Already in the Japanese market, Sharp is offering a smartphone that has a 443 pixel-per-inch screen. By contrast, Apple’s iPhone 5 has a 326 pixel-per-inch screen.

So some neat stuff from Sharp. Here’s hoping the company sticks around and continues its innovative streak.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (280 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.