If you’ve been paying attention to the market for TVs over the last few months, and especially during CES this week, you’ve been hearing a lot about 4K and 8K. But the real action today, and going forward, is in quantum dots.

Known alternately as QDots or nanocrystals, quantum dots are the foundation behind what is expected to be one of the biggest sea changes in the television market over the next few years.

A lighting technology that has been around since the 1990s, quantum dots have only recently started to gain currency with TV makers. But they may soon be the hottest thing in the high-end TV market given that they offer lower costs, higher energy efficiency, and better colors than competing technologies, experts say.

As 4K sets have come down in price, dropping below $1,000 in some cases after costing at least $4,000 just a couple years ago, and manufacturers have jammed just about as many pixels into displays as they can, consumers want the next great thing, and they’re willing to pay for it.

“TV manufacturers need something else to differentiate on the high end,” said Paul Gagnan, an industry analyst with Display Search. “The focus right now is on producing better pixels, not just more pixels. I can see that the improved color movement has legs…. You’re going to see more products, so this is not just a short-term thing.”

Taking off at CES

This week at CES, China’s TCL announced a 55-inch quantum dot-powered TV, and monitor makers Philips and AOC have said they will begin shipping 27-inch quantum dot displays within 60 days. In the coming months, major TV makers like Samsung, LG, and others will be adopting the technology in premium models.

A quantum dot is a nano material, essentially a semiconductor material, with special properties, explained John Volkmann, the chief marketing officer for QD Vision, one of the leading developers of the technology. It was designed to do a highly efficient job of breaking down light, and producing colors that are “very true to the spectrum.”

Among TV aficionados, OLED (organic light-emitting diode) has been seen as the highest-quality technology on the market. But according to Volkmann, quantum dots are a much cheaper, even higher-quality alternative.

At the moment, there are several different approaches to integrating quantum dots into displays. One, used by companies like LG, Samsung, and 3M, is to spread the dots on thin film, which is then added to the stack of films beneath a display. The other is a thin tube coated with quantum dots that’s used in edge-lit LCD backlit configurations, Gagnan explained.

Gagnan said the tube approach — which is from QD Vision — is less expensive, because it uses fewer dots. But not every manufacturer is set up to use tubes. In both cases, however, an advantage over OLED is that existing manufacturing facilities can easily incorporate quantum dots.

Essentially, quantum dots are said to be a better back-lighting technology than what has been used in standard LED-lit liquid crystal display TVs, allowing manufacturers to continue using the same factories as they move to quantum dots.

By comparison, Volkmann said, OLED requires dedicated factories.

How do they work?

Quantum dots are meant to provide a more efficient way to light the pixels in the LCD display.

In a standard LCD TV, a white light shines through a color filter, generating a picture by blending red, green, and blue lights and projecting them onto pixels. That approach, however, has its limitations. “Today’s TVs use LEDs to provide the ‘white backlight,” according to Digital Trends, “but here’s the problem with this setup: LEDs suck at producing white light.”

Gagnan agrees. “LED chips that produce white light are not sufficient to produce all the colors,” he said. “Manufacturers need a way to bump that up.”

Enter quantum dots.

The technology is meant to amp up the power of the white light generated by LEDs. “When you illuminate them with a blue LED, they emit full-spectrum light,” Gagnan said.

The idea is that the color produced by shining light through them changes depending on the atomic-sized dots’ width. “Since the size of a quantum dot can now be precisely controlled,” wrote Digital Trends, “the resulting light they put out can be dialed in just as precisely.”

There are, of course, multiple ways to boost the quality of a TV picture’s color, though at varying degrees of improvement. Other methods, explained Gagnan, are to increase the thickness of the color filter in an LCD or to use a special LED chip with a coating of red or green phosphorus. Both of those are cheaper solutions than quantum dots, and are likely to be seen in entry-level TVs. But because quantum dots are better, Gagnan said, they will be the option of choice in premium sets.

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