Projectors: continuing to shine
To all intents and purposes, the projectors we know today have been with us since the late 1980s. The following decade saw the first flat panel displays come to market – and seemed destined to take over. Remarkably, claims Ian McMurray, nothing could be further from the truth.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when if you wanted to share an image more than about 30” diagonal, there was no alternative to using a projector. And then came flat panel displays… Sleek and sexy – so, highly appropriate for boardrooms and other prestige locations – it looked like they might wipe out the projector industry.
The first truly commercial LCD flat panel displays came to market around 20 years ago. Image quality wasn’t even close to what’s possible today, and they were far from as thin as current LED-driven displays. They’ve come on in leaps and bounds – and yet the projector market has not just survived, but thrived.
The fact is that projectors have shown remarkable resilience largely through the efforts of manufacturers to continually reinvent projection technology and the markets it serves. True: you won’t find nearly so many projectors in boardrooms – but you’ll find them in many other places.
Those of us who’ve been around the industry for a while will remember when we used to claim that 350lm was all you’d need for a lights-on presentation… (Marketing, huh?) They’ll also remember fondly the InfoComm Shootout of blessed memory, where banks of projectors were arrayed side by side so visitors could compare them. Boy, were some of them embarrassing.
The first thing to say is that those scarcely-adequate projectors no longer exist: the standard across the projection industry is incredibly high. A huge change has taken place in brightness, too. I can remember the excitement when the first 1,000lm projector was announced: I think it was the 1,300lm Electrohome (remember them? They became Christie) VistaPro, in May 1996. Now, 5,000lm is commonplace – and Christie have shown a 60,000lm projector.
At the same time, resolution has moved from VGA (that’s a measly 640 x 480 pixels, you young ‘uns) to 4K’s 8 million pixels. (Oh, and: those dim, low resolution projectors used to cost several thousand dollars – and weigh a ton.)
And perhaps most remarkably of all: who would ever have thought that digital technology would replace celluloid in cinemas? Hollywood certainly didn’t. Sure, there was a compelling business case for digital – but if it hadn’t satisfied the image quality aspirations of the creatives, it wouldn’t have stood a prayer. Almost every screen in the world has gone digital, mostly due to TI’s DLP technology – which never did meet the company’s ambitions for it to be a TV technology, but that’s a whole other story…
Even with all these improvements, though, projectors suffered from some key problems when compared with flat panels. They were expensive to own, given the need to regularly change out the lamp (and lamps made them noisy and a little fragile) and the need for regular maintenance. And, there seemed to be no way round it, so to speak: that gap between the lens and the screen was, in many applications, a real barrier.
None of those advances in brightness and resolution were ever going to be enough to recapture those boardroom slots that flat panels were increasingly starting to occupy, though. As such, the industry focused its efforts on serving the markets it was best placed to serve – in other words, large images (they may be sexy, but have you ever tried to get a 90” flat panel up to the 25th floor?) And then it focused on winning back the markets it was starting to lose because of idiot PowerPoint presenters walking backwards and forwards in front of the screen. And after that, it addressed the cost of ownership issue.
So while the significant advances in brightness, resolution, contrast ratio and overall image quality have been absolutely remarkable – not to mention advances in connectivity and ease of use – what has, for me, most transformed the projector industry has been the advent of short throw lenses and SSI – solid state illumination.
Let’s take short throw lenses first. The ability to mount a projector so close to the screen that only a special kind of idiot could get between the two, yet still deliver an image larger than is practicable with a flat panel display, opened up a whole new world of application possibilities – not just in boardrooms, but in education and retail. Short throw lenses also made projection viable in much smaller rooms than was previously the case, now that an extended throw distance was no longer required.
Of course, after short throw lenses, it was inevitable there would be ultra-short throw (UST) lenses. These are now enabling the delivery of images more than two metres wide with a throw distance of only around half a metre. There’s little doubt, UST projectors are amongst the biggest sellers in the market today and responsible for much of its growth.
The development of short throw lenses could be seen as something of a natural progression. A much less natural progression – marketing people these days like to call it “disruptive” – came when projector manufacturers decided to ditch the venerable lamp.
Lamps were always a projector design challenge. I once worked with a colleague who could talk forever about ‘etendue’. I can’t say I ever really understood, but it was all about – I think – how you could most efficiently optically couple a lamp with a lens to extract the highest possible brightness. (If you really want to know more about etendue, there’s a wonderfully impenetrable Wikipedia article on the subject, complete with what are almost certainly fascinating equations.)
But brightness came at a cost. Bright things usually make heat, and that means cooling – with noisy (and, being mechanical, often unreliable) fans. It made projectors fragile, too: woe betide the presenter who didn’t let the projector cool for the requisite number of minutes before switching it off. And, worse: lamps didn’t last very long, and were far from cheap.
People had been talking for some time about the possibility of commercial projectors that used lasers as an illumination source – but did anyone see LED coming? How is it possible that such a tiny light source can deliver upwards of 3,000lm? (The answer almost certainly has something to do with etendue, but I digress…) But best of all: LED illumination lasts forever (well, tens of thousands of hours, anyway). And: it enables much smaller, lighter projectors, and it’s a much greener technology.
And then there’s lasers. That Christie 60,000lm projector noted above? It uses RGB lasers. There’s a distinction there with laser phosphor technology: where the former uses red, green and blue lasers, laser phosphor technology uses a single blue laser. Now, we have so called hybrid SSI projectors that use a combination of LEDs and laser diodes. According to researcher PMA, more than a million SSI projectors will ship this year.
Projectors, then, are finding new homes (literally, as well as figuratively: no-one in their right mind is going to build a home theatre with a flat panel display front and centre). (And: I haven’t discussed portable, ultra-portable and pico-projectors only because they’re less relevant to the proAV market.) It’s in their old homes that they continue to shine, though. With higher brightness than ever, married to sophisticated warping, edge blending and stackability, there’s still nothing that comes even close to projection’s ability to deliver utterly compelling, captivating images in almost any environment.
To adapt Mark Twain’s famous quote: reports of the death of projection have been greatly exaggerated.