VFD Today, LEP Tomorrow?
Two customer display manufacturers talk about what's new and what's to come. Could it be something as revolutionary as the application of LEP (light emitting polymer) technology?
If only Jackson Lum and Steven White had dogs like Duke Bush. Duke is the loveable golden retriever on the Bush's Baked Beans commercials who can't help but "roll that beautiful bean footage" and tell the family's secret recipe every chance he gets. Unfortunately, Lum, president of Logic Controls, and White, executive vice president and COO of IEE, Inc. are tight-lipped about their respective plans for displays in 2002, and if they have dogs, the dogs aren't talking.
The POS (point of sale) display vendor space is competitive, and rightly so. While competition may not be unique in today's economy, stability is, and display companies like IEE and Logic Controls have somehow remained stable in an otherwise shaky IT industry. It's no wonder the words of their R&D departments are so guarded. But while details are lacking, there is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for what's to come. White promised something around the summer of this year that he said will both "fill a need and knock your socks off." Lum just smirked an "I'm not telling" when asked about what's to come from Logic Controls. What's with all the secrecy?
Could It Be LEP?
It might be an optimistic guess, but could the secrecy be due to manufacturers getting close to the adoption of LEP (light emitting polymer) technology in their displays? Is POS an application for the technology? Dow Chemicals and Cambridge Display Technology, the undisputed authorities on LEPs, have alluded to an LEP display for laptops by the end of the year, so why not an LEP customer display by summer?
Cambridge University researchers discovered 12 years ago that casting low voltage over a thin film of polymers produced light. Subsequent research and development has resulted in the ability to "print" LEP screens on glass and plastic using ink jet technology, a real boon to its potential as a mass-produced medium. The technology requires no back light and can be applied to polymer screens that are as thin as a strand of hair. This might be a tangent in relation to the plans at Logic Controls and IEE, but aren't there advantages in this technology for display manufacturers and VARs? Color LEP displays will be inexpensive to manufacture, and their low voltage requirements will make them inexpensive to operate. They'll also bring color to screens once dominated by VFDs (vacuum fluorescent displays) that could only glow pale green, and they'll be light and versatile. That's not to take anything away from the modern pole display, which has done more than its fair share of space saving, double-sided displaying, and plug and playing over the years.
Of Acronyms And Interfaces
Speaking of plug and play, interface options were one topic both Lum and White were willing to discuss. Both touted the virtues of open-architect interfaces like OPOS (object linking and embedding for point of sale), JPOS (Java for point of sale), and USB (universal serial bus) in new products. These all come at the hands of standardization. "Previously, computers had to know the command sets of its peripherals from manufacturer to manufacturer," says Lum. "The software developer of the future doesn't need to know what kind of peripheral the end user is going to buy, as long as it is OPOS compatible," he says.
"Being in tune with open systems architecture just makes it easier for the VAR," says White. Beyond new interface standards, he adds, ease-of-use is achieved by building displays that emulate as many others as possible.
The Double-Duty Display
No conversation with a display vendor is complete without the double-duty discussion. Lum feels that VARs aren't as aware as they should be of his displays' functions beyond checkout. "It's a VAR's responsibility to learn what products and features are available and convey this information to the end user. That's how they can get higher premiums," he says. "When there's no transaction taking place, the display is used to advertise specials, or it's a clock. The customer is willing to pay a few dollars for these functions, but the features don't cost the VAR any additional money," Lum contends.
IEE's focus on its ShopVue price checker is proof positive of the display's promotional power. When a customer is not using the unit, it displays sale items and specials with full-color graphics. Initially targeted at upscale department stores, White is alarmed by the interest the unit has sparked in the grocery vertical.
It will be interesting to see what display vendors call the next big thing. Beyond (and in some cases in spite of) the sales clerk, the customer display is the most interactive part of a shopper's experience. Hopefully that alone will warrant some excitement in the near future. Whether or not manufacturers will adopt LEP technology remains to be seen, but in the meantime I'll be holding onto my socks.