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THE RACE FOR HIGH-DEFINITION TV : Southern California Auditions : Small Firms Vying for Key Roles

Times Staff Writer

Amerasia Technology isn’t yet a household word, but if Teong Lim has his way, its technology will end up in every home.

The tiny Westlake Village company, which develops highly specialized heat and pressure sensors for the military, thinks it has a role to play in the future of television.

Amerasia Technology is one of about 18 Southern California companies, most of them small or medium-sized, trying to win some of the $30 million the Defense Department has earmarked for development of high-definition television technology. Few of the small companies--many of them headed by former academics or defense industry scientists--propose to develop a complete high-definition system. Instead, many say they can contribute small but crucial pieces to the technological puzzle that will ultimately be solved by such giants as AT&T;, IBM or others.

“We won’t get a big piece (of the work), but a small piece--a piece that will help make the others more successful,” predicted Lim, a former scientist for Rockwell International who now is president of Amerasia, which had sales of $2.5 million last year.

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High-definition technology could mean big money for companies that play key roles in its development. Many experts believe that HDTV will figure prominently in industry, defense and consumer products.

The technology, which provides sharper, clearer video images, could be used with computers to design cars or to spot enemy targets. But the consumer market may be the most lucrative area, with sales of HDTV sets and transmission equipment expected to be a $50-billion business by the year 2000.

A few of the small Southern California companies hoping to get part of the HDTV business have made bids for defense department grants with huge corporate partners with ample financial resources.

Symbolics Graphics, based in Los Angeles, made a proposal with Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corp., a consortium whose members include such major technology companies as National Semiconductor, Hughes Aircraft and Harris Corp.

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But Symbolics, which was founded in 1980 by a group of former Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists, also turned in its own proposal for a technology its says can produce sharply detailed computer graphics. The company plans to use its high-definition technology to film next week’s space shuttle launch in a demonstration with several other companies, including Bell South and Sony.

Symbolics, like other small Southern California technology companies, says it wants to keep the details of its proposal secret for competitive reasons. Still, Thomas L. McMahon, director of graphics research and development, said he isn’t too concerned about the size of some of his competitors.

“It’s not intimidating. Its really part of playing the game,” he said. “It’s my understanding that (the Defense Department) wants to stimulate the U.S. technological base. IBM has a lot of technology, but the smaller guys do, too.”

Other small companies can count on the help of well-financed owners. PCO, a Chatsworth company owned by Corning Glass Works and IBM, wants to develop a device that would receive high-definition television signals from both fiber-optic cables, and over-the-air transmissions. PCO makes special devices that allow information to pass from fiber optic cables to telephones and computers.

PCO’s proposed device “would allow higher-quality pictures to be achieved as more and more fiber-optic transmission systems are implemented,” said James Goell, vice president for special projects. Goell said he couldn’t comment on whether PCO would work with its owners, which separately submitted their own proposals to the Defense Department.

Interstate Electronics Corp., an Anaheim defense contractor with about $150 million in 1988 sales, is owned by Figgie International of Richmond, Va. Bert Weinstein, planning director for Interstate Electronics, said his company hopes to turn its experience with liquid crystal technology--the same technology used in digital watches--into a research grant.

High-definition technology is important to his company, he said. “It’s going to tie into the military display business, and so we have to be up with it somehow.”

He wasn’t certain about Interstate Electronic’s chances, however. “This is hard to judge. We’re certainly not regarded as high as some others. But we wouldn’t have a proposal out there if we didn’t think we had a chance.”

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San Diego-based Qualcomm, which develops two-way communications systems for the military, wants to tackle some of the signal transmission problems generated by HDTV, said Qualcomm founder and Chairman Irwin Mark Jacobs.

“One problem with HDTV is that you have to fit much more information into a limited band width,” Jacobs said. “You have to treat that information very carefully. We’re interested in how you properly compress that signal, transmit it and restore it at the other end.”

Optics, a 2-year-old Westlake Village company created by two former Hughes Aircraft scientists, submitted a “pseudo proposal,” said President Robert E. Fischer. The company, which has three employees, does consulting in special optical technologies that are used to make computer chips, he said.

“These technologies are going to be used in high-definition in one way or another,” said Fischer, who added that he wasn’t seeking grant money, but perhaps work as a “technical monitor.” He said, “We just wrote a letter to the Defense Department to let them know we’re here.”

Times staff writer Greg Johnson in San Diego contributed to this story.

SOUTHLAND FIRMS INVOLVED IN HDTV

The following companies have either presented their own HDTV development proposals, or are taking part in another company’s effort: Amerasia Technology Inc., Westlake Village American Semiconductor Equipment Technologies, Woodland Hills General Research Corp., Santa Barbara High Resolution Sciences Inc., Los Angeles Hughes Aircraft Co., various locations Interstate Electronics Corp., Anaheim Conac, Duarte Sigmatron Nova Inc., Thousand Oaks Optics 1 Inc., Westlake Village Ore Inc., Malibu PCO Inc., Woodland Hills Qualcomm Inc., San Diego Brooktree Corp., San Diego Sony Manufacturing Co., San Diego Hycom Inc., Irvine Symbolics, Los Angeles Del Rey Group, Marina del Rey


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