The Better Business Bureau has referred Texas Instruments (TI) to the Federal Trade Commission for refusing to stop making what a competitor describes as “false comparative claims” about the advantages of its proprietary digital light processing (DLP) technology over liquid crystal display (LCD) technology in digital projectors and displays.

According to a case report from the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau, Epson America Inc. says TI, in promotional materials and internet advertisements, falsely claims that its DLP technology is more reliable than LCD, is “all digital,” and that seven of the top 10 television manufacturers prefer DLP over LCD.

Though TI disputes Epson’s charges, the company reportedly has agreed to stop making the latter two assertions in its advertising. But TI stopped short of pulling its claims about DLP’s superior reliability, prompting NAD to refer the company to the FTC. The referral is not an indication of who is right and who is wrong in the dispute; that will be up to the FTC to decide.

The virtues and drawbacks of each of these technologies have been hotly debated among video experts–no doubt inspired by the vitriol of the companies that manufacture the comparably priced media–for years. One expert referred to the dispute over which video system performs better as “the technology war.” The FTC now has been brought in to better define the rules of engagement.

At the heart of the debate are the technological means by which images are projected onto the screen–and each company’s claims of its own product’s superior performance.

Epson is a leading supplier of LCD technology. LCD uses two sheets of polarizing material with a liquid crystal solution between them. An electric current passed through the liquid causes the crystals to align so that light cannot pass through them. Each crystal, therefore, is like a shutter, either allowing light to pass through or blocking the light.

DLP is a proprietary technology developed by TI. The DLP chip itself is a reflective surface made up of thousands of tiny mirrors. Each mirror represents a single pixel, or a single point that, when combined with other pixels, comes together to form an image. Light from the projector’s lamp is directed onto the surface of the DLP chip. The mirrors wobble back and forth, directing light either into or away from the lens path.

“The bottom line about what happened,” said David Mallen, assistant director for legal affairs at NAD, “is that TI indicated it would make some changes [in its advertising] but ultimately declined to participate in the self-regulatory process. Whenever that happens, we routinely refer it to the FTC.”

Mallen added, “It is not all that common that we do refer things. Most of the time, companies participate fully.”

The NAD case report says Epson believes TI “makes disparaging claims about LCD technology both generally and as incorporated in specific products.” Epson also takes issue with TI’s claims “that DLP is ‘more reliable’ because it is virtually immune to … factors that cause analog technologies such as LCD to degrade over time.”

In addition, Epson challenges TI’s assertion that DLP products are “all digital,” which Epson disputes on the grounds that (a) DLP projectors use mechanical parts and cannot be referred to as such, and (b) that the assertion falsely implies a greater degree of reliability to consumers. Epson also has disputed TI’s claim that seven out of the top 10 television manufacturers prefer DLP technology over LCD.

Pam Barnett, public manager for Epson, refused to comment other than to confirm the facts of the case, citing NAD restrictions against doing so.

“We understand that Texas Instruments will no longer make claims of superiority of use in projection televisions, or claims that LCD projection technology is more susceptible to vibration and misalignment, or the claim that ‘all digital’ means ‘more reliable.’ TI also will no longer make the claim that seven out of 10 television manufacturers have chosen DLP,” Barnett said.

Molly Mulloy, public relations manager for Texas Instruments’ DLP department, called the claims made by Epson “essentially semantic.”

“For instance, they challenged us on the use of ‘all digital’ to describe the DLP technology,” Mulloy said. “On the chip level, it is all digital. They countered that the [companies] that manufacture supplies [to build the projectors] use non-digital parts,” said Mulloy.

Regarding TI’s assertion that DLP technology is more reliable than LCD, Mulloy pointed to studies commissioned by TI and often used by the company to support its advertising claims.

“We’ve had two third-party studies done that demonstrate that LCD shows picture degradation over time, and DLP does not,” said Mulloy. She denied Epson’s contention that these product tests were “classic torture tests” that do not accurately represent how the projectors will be used by consumers.

David Wyble, who carried out the studies TI commissioned, is the color scientist from the Munsell Color Science Laboratory at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Wyble said one of the studies was meant for internal company use only. The second, available online, demonstrates measurements of contrast and light degradation over time in DLP versus LCD projectors over a period of 5,000 hours of continuous run time.

“What I hope you see in this report is objectivity,” Wyble said. “I would stand by … the measurements we made [and] the procedures we used.”

Dave Dicklich, publisher for ProjectorCentral.com, a web site that provides independent product analysis for projector technology, said the problems with degradation in LCD technology are technically accurate, but open to a great deal of interpretation and qualification.

“Organic materials used in LCDs will decay after exposure to ultraviolet [UV] light. To prevent this, LCD projectors use UV filters. The intended application of the projector defines the heartiness of the UV filtering,” Dicklich said.

In reference to the disputed tests, “if you take a projector that is intended for infrequent use, such as a portable projector, and drive it 24-7, you will likely stress the displays,” Dicklich said.

“The real issue is expectation,” he continued. “If you buy an automobile, you have some idea of your car’s life expectancy based on prior experience and some expectation on cost of ownership based in part on the strength of the warranty. During the warranty period, you expect to be covered for failures due to workmanship and manufacturing defects. Projectors are no different.”

On the main page of the TI web site devoted to DLP technology, the claim of “unmatched picture reliability” is pitched alongside a product image. For more information, the user is asked to follow a link marked “unwavering reliability.” That link takes the user to a page that shows two nearly identical, side-by-side images from Wyble’s report. The first, featuring homes alongside a harbor, is captured from an LCD projector after running continuously for 4,100 hours. The second features a much clearer version of the same image, marked as having run for the same period of time–the DLP image.

The claim that DLP technology is “virtually immune to degradation” is made in light of this evidence. “According to an independent laboratory test, even if they’re run continuously for 4,000 hours, DLP projectors provide and sustain exceptional picture quality,” the site says.

Another part of the DLP web site uses the study as a springboard for asking the rhetorical question, “Are LCD technology users ‘being shortchanged’?” Under this highlighted and enlarged font, analyst Fred Kahn is quoted as making the statement, “Users of LCD technology are apparently being shortchanged,” after which Kahn cites TI’s own study as evidence. Visitors to the DLP web site also can find links to a video that explains the Munsell tests to users, as well as to the actual study itself.

Kahn could not be found for comment before press time.

“The LCD people said that the experiment is bad, and that may be,” Wyble said of his report. “The LCD people can say that we ran those [projectors] for 24-7 and consumers would never do that. That’s fine. I did what the [TI representative] told me to do: I took measurements, I reported on the measurements.”

According to the NAD report, TI “voluntarily elected to discontinue most of the claims challenged by Epson America Inc., with the exception of claims regarding a marked difference in picture reliability over time between LCD and DLP technology-enabled front data projectors due to image degradation.” TI claims these assertions are “fully supported.”

“We just believe our technology is more reliable–the picture reliability in data projectors, because that is what we have tested–and more suitable for applications that require a long-term investment in the product, [such as] education,” Mulloy explained. “We chose not to move forward with [the NAD self-regulatory process]; we felt those claims [regarding picture reliability] were not false.”

Links:

Texas Instruments Inc.
http://www.ti.com

TI’s DLP page
http://www.dlp.com

Epson America Inc.
http://www.epson.com

National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau
http://www.nadreview.org

Federal Trade Commission
http://www.ftc.gov

ProjectorCentral
http://www.projectorcentral.com