Display Summit– In Search of the Perfect Projector at InfoComm 2015

Display Summit– In Search of the Perfect Projector at InfoComm 2015
  • The Display Summit– always held on the eve of InfoComm– never disappoints if you’re looking for a high-level technology update on the latest and greatest in video projection and display of all stripes, before you see product on the InfoComm show floor or out in the field. Yes, it’s no longer the “Projection Summit” as it was called in previous years– as flat panel, direct-view LED and other displays have come to the AV forefront– but that said it’s almost always the big-gun projectors that get the most love at the Display Summit. And this year that love is well-deserved as there are so many new laser-flavored projectors coming to market– and not just for cinema but for the larger AV world.

Moderator Chris Chinnock at the podium, and the panelists at the Cinema Panel at the Display Summit: Bill Beck of Barco, Michael Karagosian, Richard McPherson of NEC Display Solutions, and Christie’s Don Shaw.
A special panel on Day 2 of the Display Summit featured top Hollywood digital cinema expert Michael Karagosian, Richard McPherson of NEC Display Solutions, Bill Beck of Barco, and Christie’s Don Shaw. Chris Chinnock–who runs the Display Summit– moderated, as the panel explored new developments including cinema market technology’s influence on large venue projection for non-cinema applications.

Tuesday’s Cinema panel avoided the 2-projector Laser vs. the single projector laser for 3D face-off (Christie vs. Barco) that we saw last year at NAB, CinemaCon, and InfoComm. The landscape has already shifted, as Barco and Christie have settled into market alliances on the premium cinema side (Barco with IMAX; Christie with Dolby) and sole provider cinema product lines with which they are comfortable. NEC has of course their Laser phosphor solution that they’ve been selling into the cinema (smaller screen) market and pro AV market since last year. What’s different now is that Barco is using InfoComm to introduce its own laser phosphor solution and so will broaden out their lineup to go down the food chain for cinema (smaller screens) and up the food chain for the pro AV market that heretofore has only seen lower-lumen laser phosphor projectors (in the 6-7K lumen range). Indeed, while much of the discussion at the Cinema panel at the Display Summit focused on the 60K lumen laser projectors that are here in the cinema market (but only in a very limited way due to cost and availability) as the holy grail and solution of many Hollywood problems (too-dark or too small 3D screens, mainly), it’s the more humble laser phosphor projectors that will have the most impact on the AV market in the near term. At the high end of laser phosphor, this InfoComm will have NEC showing new, brighter (12K lumen) laser phosphor. Barco has their new line of laser phosphor. And Digital Projection is broadening their line of laser phosphor to now offer not just 3-chip DLP Laser Phosphor (that they’ve had for a year or so) but also new 1-chip models that they are debuting this week at InfoComm (one at about 6500 lumens, and a brighter one at about 8500 lumens). And also outside the cinema space but very interesting is a new product from Panasonic that despite Panasonic's sexy projection mapping demo at InfoComm is that company's most impressive thing at the show this week: Panasonic's new PT-RQ13KU, a "4K+" 3-chip DLP laser phosphor projector. The projector has 10,000 lm of brightness and a contrast ratio of 20,000. "4K+"? The projector’s pixels, are, according to Panasonic, "shifted both horizontally and vertically at a high frame rate of 240 Hz, physically creating four different pixels from a single pixel, effectively quadrupling the pixel density of the image." Again, we are drifting away from cinema and DCI, but we are talking impressive innovations for the larger AV world. Like all the new gen laser phosphor projectors from all the companies, the Panasonic projector also delivers a 20,000-hour light-source life.

There was some debate on the panel Tuesday about whether laser phosphor from some providers might be a compromise in terms of top cinema quality, and whether some laser phosphor is color deficient (red-deficient specifically) and discussion that at some cinema demos recently manufactures were running out of bounds of DCIP3 spec, in order to get the boosted brightness. But both the NEC and Barco representatives said that they have never done that, and that their laser phosphor meets all DCI specs. Bill Beck of Barco even said that the time is coming when they will be able to reach DCI spec at 30K lumens from laser phosphor. And it's important to note that Barco is the only manufacturer that is coming in from the top so to speak with laser phosphor. They are releasing a "retrofit" package that will allow commercial cinemas that are now using Barco's fully DCI compliant cinema projectors to remove the conventional lamp housing and retrofit the projector with a laser phosphor light engine. They plan to have these retrofitable light engines available for 20K, 25K, and 30K lumen duty within a year (starting with 20K lumen models this summer).

And there are many other laser phosphor projectors from a variety of exhibitors that will be shown at InfoComm in the more modest 7-8K-lumen range. But even the more modest ones are the leading edge of a revolution– because of the TCO part of the package: these are all lamp free projectors. In the big-screen cinema world the lamp free advantage is important but its not the most salient point right now. 3D cinema needs more lumens on the screens, period. But in the rest of the projection world, TCO is everything. With laser phosphor projectors coming in at about 20,000 hours of “lamp” life, that TCO is money in the bank for the end user (most of whom, i.e. the ones not educated about new gen lampless projectors, still do not realize that a single higher lumen conventional lamp-based projector will use up to $20K in lamp replacements over its lifetime).

When I asked at the Cinema panel whether we might see now, at the high end (i.e. pure laser not laser phosphor) some momentum from the AV side of the fence as opposed to the cinema side (spec’ing in laser projectors at 60K to solve the dark 3D problem), the answer from the panelists was refreshing. Despite all the ink that the cinema market gets, big-gun laser projectors are today being sold more into the AV market than into the cinema market. “We sell more laser projectors into theme parks, than into the cinema market, today” said Christie’s Don Shaw. Barco also has many deals this year in pro AV. The staging market for pure laser projectors? Not yet– there are still government regulations that prohibit the big laser projectors from being used in a live event (but change is coming there as well, eventually.)

The fact is that the entire projection world is in total flux, if not disarray. The march toward lampless hybrid (generally the term used for lower-lumen LED/laser hybrid light source projectors in the 2-4K lumen range) at the low end is strong. With the new laser phosphor projectors (also sometimes called blue laser pumped phosphor) filling in previous gaps in the mid-range and with lampless solutions, whole new markets are opening. (For the integrator, and for projector manufacturers as well lamp-free is not all sunshine as lamps were and are a good source of revenue that will not be easy to give up– but that said the market presses on and there is no putting the lamp-free genie back in the bottle.)

And at the high end cinema does indeed spin off new solutions– specifically pure laser light source projectors that will come faster than you think– but that’s not to say fast. As Michael Karagosian pointed out today at the Cinema panel at the Display Summit, even with a new robust pure laser projector (they are here now), we (he means Hollywood studios that control DCI specs) are still stuck in a digital cinema regime that is old– ten years old. We are still not addressing other important issues, specifically HDR and contrast (High Dynamic Range is of course the focus of many on the creative side who want better contrast ratios, whether for Xenon based or Laser based projectors and in fact the whole playback system); the impact of speckle and metameric variability in laser projection (do some exhibitors really need to shake screens to deal with speckle?); a new limit for higher compression bit rate (Karagosian rightly points out that despite what advances are made in pure projection technology it's still all about getting and maintaining higher bit rates throughout the capture/post/mastering/delivery chain); a practical color gamut for mastering (many different light sources available now means color gamuts all over the map); and other production, post, and exhibition issues that go way beyond just increasing the number of lumens on a screen.

David Keene is a publishing executive and editorial leader with extensive business development and content marketing experience for top industry players on all sides of the media divide: publishers, brands, and service providers. Keene is the former content director of Digital Signage Magazine.