Addressing is the process by which pixels are turned on and off in order to create an image. There are two main types of addressing, direct and multiplexing. Direct addressing is convenient for displays where there are only a few elements that have to be activated. With direct addressing, each pixel in the display has its own drive circuit. A microprocessor must individually apply a voltage to each element. A common application of direct addressing is the traditional seven segment liquid crystal display, found in wristwatches and similar devices.
In multiplex addressing, a larger number of pixels are involved. When the elements are in a regular order, they can be addressed by their row and column instead of each element being driven separately. This reduces the complexity of the circuitry because each pixel no longer needs its own driver circuit. If you have a 10x10 matrix of pixels, with direct addressing, you need 100 individual drivers. However, if you use multiplex addressing, you only need 20 drivers, one for each row and one for each column. This is a tremendous advantage, especially as displays become larger and larger.
Passive vs. Active Matrix Displays
The passive matrix display is addressed by a set of multiplexed transparent electrodes, perpendicular to one another, above and below the liquid crystal layer in a row and column formation as seen below. The electrodes in diagram are colored red and blue so that the structure is apparent. The electrodes are typically constructed of indium tin oxide (ITO) which is a semi-transparent conducting material. The liquid crystal material is colored green in the diagram strictly for structural clarity.
A passive pixel is addressed when there is a sufficient voltage across it to cause the liquid crystal molecules to align parallel to the electric field. A display can have more than one pixel on at any one time because of the response time of the liquid crystal material. When addressed, a pixel has a short turn-on time during which the liquid crystal molecules align in such a way as to make the pixel opaque. When the voltage is removed the pixel behaves similar to a discharging capacitor, slowly turning off as charge dissipates and the molecules return to their undeformed orientation.
Because of this response time, a display can scan across the matrix of pixels, turning on the appropriate ones to form an image. As long as the time to scan the entire matrix is shorter than the turn-off time, a multiple pixel image (like the animation below) can be displayed. The time scale of the animation has been stretched so as to see what is normally imperceptible to the human eye. The transparent electrodes momentarily revert to blue and red to signify voltage being applied. The pixel gradually becomes opaque. As the voltage is removed (as shown by the electrodes becoming colorless again) the cell remains opaque briefly before it becomes clear again.
Active Matrix Displays
Active matrix displays are currently available in high end laptop computers. In this type of display, the addressing takes place completely behind the liquid crystal film. The front surface of the display is coated with a continuous electrode while the rear surface electrode is patterned into individual pixels. A thin film transistor (TFT) acts as a switch for each pixel. The TFT is shown as the purple square at the corner of the blue electrode in the single pixel animation (below, right.) The TFT is addressed by a set of narrow multiplexed electrodes (gate lines and source lines) running along the gaps between pixels. A pixel is addressed by applying current to a gate line which switches the TFT on and allows charge from the source line to flow on to the rear electrode (shown as the starburst effect in the pixel animation below). This sets up a voltage across the pixel and turns it on. An image is created similar to the passive display as the addressing circuitry scans across the matrix. An active matrix display does not suffer from many of the limitations of the passive display. It can be viewed at an angle of up to 45 degrees and has a contrast of 40:1, meaning that the brightness of an "on" pixel is 40 times greater than an "off" pixel. It does, however, require a more intense back lighting system because the TFT's and the gate and source lines are not very transparent and therefore block a fraction of the light.
The techniques discussed so far have only been able to describe a simple two color display. In order to achieve color, it is first necessary to have a display which is black in one state and white in the other. This distinction is made because some displays (early STN displays for example) may have a yellow on blue appearance which will not be able to produce the full range of colors. In a white display, all wavelengths pass through and therefore, all wavelengths can be manipulated to create the desired color. To get full color, each individual pixel is divided into three subpixels: red, green and blue (RGB). That is to say that for each full color pixel, three distinct pixels are employed. These subpixels are created by applying color filters which only allow certain wavelengths to pass through them while absorbing the rest. With a combination of red, blue and green subpixels of various intensities, a pixel can be made to appear any number of different colors. This is analogous to a color cathode ray tube (CRT) like a television or computer monitor in which different phosphors glow red, green or blue when excited by an electron beam. The number of colors that can be made by mixing red, green and blue subpixels depends on the number of distinct gray scales (intensities) that can be achieved by the display.
In order for a display to show information, it must have a light source. Some displays use only ambient light and employ a reflective surface mounted behind the display -- most calculators and watches are like this. These displays are not very bright because the light must pass through multiple polarizers which severely cut down on the intensity of the light, in addition to the various layers of the display which are only semi-transparent. Therefore a more intense source is employed in the form of a back lighting system. Light bulbs mounted behind and at the edges of the display replace the reflected ambient light. This results in brighter displays for two reasons: the light doesn't have to come in through the display and therefore does not lose part of the intensity, and the lighting system can be made more intense than ambient light. Back lighting has the disadvantage of being very power intensive. Back lighting systems are used in more complex displays such as laptop computer screens.