Slammed by phone rivals, Sharp pins hopes on in-car displays

The Apple supplier tries to shake up its mainline display business as LCD prices fall

Sharp's free-form display LCD panel for automotive applications, on show at Ceatec 2014 in Japan on October 7, 2014.

Sharp's free-form display LCD panel for automotive applications, on show at Ceatec 2014 in Japan on October 7, 2014.

Struggling display manufacturer Sharp, reeling from fierce competition in smartphones, will push automakers to incorporate vehicle dashboards that have gestural commands, thin bezels and other next-generation features.

It's hoping cars will be controlled, in part, through high-resolution displays that can fit any two-dimensional surface area, such as dashboard panels with rounded contours.

The company has shown off the wavy screens for cars and consoles in recent months, and has tried to woo automakers to use them. Under the firm's new medium-term strategy, the push has taken on greater urgency.

Thin-bezel dashboard LCDs, as well as screens that can provide multiple views to different passengers in a car depending on their perspective, could prove to be a lifeline for Sharp, which hasn't been able to command a dominant market position despite cutting-edge technology.

Sharp is an Apple supplier and is said to be a maker of iPhone 6 screens, along with Japan Display, and LG Display of South Korea.

Apple sources some of its screens from Sharp's Kameyama plants in central Japan, which produce the maker's flagship IGZO (indium gallium zinc oxide) transparent crystalline semiconductor displays. IGZO displays, which Sharp began producing for smartphones in 2013, have smaller pixels than conventional LCD screens and feature low power consumption.

Last month, Sharp showed off a 5.5-inch display with 3860 x 2160 or 4K pixel resolution, which was part of a 12.5-inch IGZO panel. But there were no immediate plans for mass production.

Sharp's ability to generate dazzling phone graphics hasn't saved its bottom line. The firm announced a US$1.7 billion bailout from banks this week, its second lifeline in three years, and posted a dismal earnings performance for the year to March 31 with a net loss of ¥222.3 billion ($1.8 billion). It blamed declining prices in small and medium-sized LCDs.

In contrast, Sharp sees prices for automotive and industrial automation displays as more stable because the barriers to market entry are higher due to the technological know-how that's required. Now it needs to play for time.

"We're expanding in the B2B business, which we don't have in big quantities at this point," Sharp spokeswoman Miyuki Nakayama said. "Car design usually takes about two or three years until it reaches the product, so this will take time."

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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