A screen-test star

Flat-panel guru is ahead of curve

If you own a high-definition TV, don't read Edward Kelley's new tip sheet for folks in the market for plasma, LCD and other high-end displays. He doesn't want to ruin your day.

Kelley is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Flat Screen Display Laboratory in Boulder. He wrote most of what one in the industry called "a bible" for the industrial testing and certification of flat - panel screens.

Ed kelly, NIST flat-panel display guru
NIST physicist Edward Kelley points out details of a plasma TV in his FlatPanel Display Lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology on Thursday. Kelley works to develop and ensure the accuracy of testing standards for displays. Marty Caivano/Daily Camera

Kelley's tip sheet opens sternly, with an all-caps warning.

"SOME PEOPLE HAVE FOUND THAT THE FOLLOWING MATERIAL HAS REDUCED THEIR ABILITY TO ENJOY THEIR FLAT PANEL TELEVISION," it reads, adding, "YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!"

Kelly, 58, has six small NIST labs at his disposal, from the cave-like Black Lab full of spectroradiometers, photometers, cameras and other equipment to a machine shop where Kelley makes his own lamps and light sources to shine on various screens. The most striking device, a 6-foot-diameter blue orb called an integrating sphere, could be Mork from Ork's second car.

Inside, the sphere is glaringly white - it's 98 percent reflective, brighter than any house paint - to create a consistent environment for testing displays mounted inside.

Kelley's lab, part of a $665,000-a-year NIST display-testing effort, has a big influence on an industry that market-research firm DisplaySearch estimates at $100 billion globally.

Don't ask Kelley to recommend a specific brand or whether to go with LCD, plasma or micromirrors. He concentrates on how to properly measure the performance of any sort of display in terms of color, brightness, grayscale rendering and a bevy of other factors. Plus, he says, different viewing environments call for different screens.

Manufacturers buying millions of displays a year rely on standards Kelley developed, refined or verified "in his darkrooms and labs and caves," said Phil Downen, sales manager at display-measurement company Westar Display Technologies in St. Louis, Mo.

"He plays the policeman/researcher role to come up with methods that help us all be on the same sheet of music when it comes to picture quality," Downen said.

Kelley stressed that "NIST is a servant to industry."

Kelley has been an innovative servant. Among many other things, he developed a globally recognized test for display-screen quality using a Styrofoam beer cooler, which remains a Black Lab fixture.

"This is called redneck metrology," he said.

Flat panel display tips

It works, as do more traditional procedures, to measure such things as gamut - how much of the color spectrum a display can reproduce - and gamma, which tells how well a display handles subtle gradations from black to white.

Michael Brill, principal color scientist for Lawrenceville, N.J.-based color-measurement specialists Datacolor, said Kelley is "the guru of display measurement at NIST and is recognized worldwide in that regard."

Kelley said his tip sheet began as a practical tool for industry scientists and engineers who had just gone through a technical course he periodically hosts at NIST. Paul Boynton, the lab's Gaithersberg, Md.-based director, and Boulder NIST physicist Marla Dowell suggested posting it for more-public consumption.

Among the tipsheet's lessons include several low-tech ways to evaluate displays, whose quality can appear starkly different depending on such things as room lighting and viewing angle. The guidelines will work for any type of flat screen, he said.

In Kelley's lab, a demonstration plasma display mirrored back much more room lighting than the LCD next to it, but outclassed the LCD when the lights were turned down, for example.

Despite - or perhaps because of - his immersion in flat panel display technology, Kelley himself doesn't own one.

"I'm waiting for them to come down in price and go up in quality," he said.