Right up front I want to get it off of my chest. I must admit to being a traitor of sorts. After spending a decade of my life at Hughes-JVC competing against products with LCD and DLP light engines, I have gone to what in a previous career I would have considered the "dark side" and I am truly enjoying my 56" Samsung DLP television. Furthermore I must own up to having a neat little three pound Proxima DLP projector that I take everywhere and I cannot fail to mention how good the Academy Awards looked with the folks at Digital Projection and their DLP based projectors on center stage. Confession is good for the soul!
I teach the Fundamentals of Displays and Advanced Display Technologies courses at InfoComm each year. In this role I must be impartial and report the status of each type of display technology be it plasma, LCD, LCoS, or DLP. The truth may hurt, but in many ways, as my kids would say, DLP rules. With the10 year anniversary of the introduction of DLP at hand, there is no better time to take a look at the last decade of projection display, and look at what DLP has brought to the table, or should I say stage?
A long time ago and it seems like a galaxy far away projectors were simple CRT-based units with a blinding 200 lumens of light output. We continually fought the issue of brightness, contrast, and resolution. Alignment and convergence became the death knell of more than one project. The only high brightness option was the GE Talaria with its oil filled light valve at the core. OK, for the history buffs, there was also Eidaphor but they never made a splash on this side of the pond to any extent. The Talaria must be given its due in projector history but it was large, quirky to set up, and very expensive to buy and operate. One company actually had a really good business just rebuilding the light valves
Names like Barco, Electrohome, Sony, NEC, GE, and Ampro dominated the early projection industry but in the decade of the 90s this was about to change. A new 800 pound gorilla was lurking in the shadows as an offspring of Hughes Aircraft. They had a new technology that would become the first high brightness competitor to the GE Talaria and Eidaphor. The plan was to begin on the high end and then bring out products based on the Image Light Amplifier that would dominate the market at all levels. I remember seeing samples of five pound projectors in our labs way back in 1991.
As the National Sales Manager of Hughes Light Valve Products Inc, I remember going to InfoComm in Philadelphia in 1996 totally full of ourselves and convinced that we would own the projection market. We had not yet heard of another upstart technology called a "digital micro-mirror device" or DMD for short. Back In 1987 a scientist at Texas Instruments, Dr. Larry Hornbeck, developed an optical semiconductor capable of steering photons with unparalleled accuracy. His "moving mirror chips" were an interesting footnote to what we thought was an otherwise bright future for our new venture. Little did we know?
Like so many technologies, the original DLP R&D effort was funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). George HW Bush was VP at the time so funds were routed to Texas (or so the story goes) rather than to Southern California (Hughes) or Northern California (Greyhawk). If true, politics does make good bedfellows.
Back to1991, an English company, Rank Brimar entered into a formal agreement with Texas Instruments to jointly develop the DMD and related technologies, in order to create the first DLP-based high brightness projection systems. By1992, the first motion imagery ever displayed by a 3-chip DLP projector is viewed at Digital Projection Limited in Manchester UK. The unit was the first prototype to incorporate revolutionary "bit-splitting" technology. Without that innovation, DMD's would not have been able to display motion imagery without visual artifacts that would have rendered the imagery un-viewable
By 1993 Texas Instruments had developed the core technology but they had no real intentions of producing projectors (unlike the Hughes team). TI knew that they could use their new chip for their own projector designs and sell thousands of them or they could sell the basic optical engine and DMD chip to other manufacturers and sell millions. They remained true to their business core of supplying chips and sub assemblies to the entire industry, not unlike what Intel and AMD have done in the PC industry. In 1995 they signed their first broad customer development agreements and in 1996 they shipped their very first DLP single chip subsystem to nView. For their 3 chip developments they began with Digital Projection followed by contracts with Electrohome (now Christie Digital), Ampro, Barco, etc. In 2003 TI celebrated selling their 2 millionth DLP sub assembly since 1996 and in 2004 they raised the ante by selling their 5 millionth,
Another smart move on the part of Texas Instruments has been in the area of marketing their product. One example of smart marketing was the commitment by TI to advertise the DMD chip and the future that it promised. In the middle 90s and continuing today they spend millions to support the efforts of those manufacturers who develop products based on their technology. It literally has become the defacto standard and only recently has the 3LCD marketing campaign by Epson even attempted to challenge their marketing dominance. Finally, kudos must be given to the person who decided that "digital micro mirror device" was a handful and at last settled on DLP or "digital light processing". (As a side note, my favorite projector names over the years were the Barco Light Cannon, a name "developed over numerous cervesas on a trip to Cancun I am told, and the Electrohome Roadie, both brilliant, pun intended, names.)
From the technology point of view several key events have colored the last decade for DLP. A couple of colleagues, Mike Levi of Digital Projection, and Bill Schripsema of Liberty Wire and Cable but formerly of GE, AmPro, etc. have been kind enough to supply some historical perspective to supplement my own recollections.
In 1995 the first public demonstrations of 3-chip DLP projectors were made in London and Hollywood using Rank Brimar prototypes. Even these early demonstrations showed the amazing lumen and color capabilities that DLP projectors promised to deliver. As a former competitor, I can tell you that market interest begins to stir.
The first big bang came in 1996 where Rank Brimar/Digital Projection demonstrated the first prototype 3-chip DLP projector at INFOCOMM in Philadelphia, forever changing the projection industry.
In l998, Texas Instruments along with Digital Projection won two EMMY Awards each for Outstanding Achievement in Engineering Development. DLP projectors were starting to be utilized in numerous broadcast applications, due to their ease of setup, high lumens, and ability to match the exacting colorimetry of broadcast lighting and cameras.
The first public showing of a first run motion picture using digital cinema equipment took place in 1999. At Hughes-JVC we had been invited by Lucas Films to use our ILA12K to show Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. Unbeknownst to us, Texas Instruments had also been invited to show their DLP projectors, resulting in a shoot-out of sorts but in different theaters. We both claimed victory but this date should go down in display history as the spot where film was finally challenged by the digital world.
Initially DLP had their own Achilles heel. In the early days I recall the "stuck pixel" scare where the mirrors would randomly stay in one position. The competitors thought they had a gift from heaven with this one, but to no avail. TI had this licked in short order, as it was a simple production issue and not a design flaw. There was also the issue of low resolution at a paltry 800x600 but this was also a short-lived limitation. With the introduction of the 3 chip DLP in XGA format, this was the death knell for Light Valves from Hughes and AmPro and even large format LCDs from Barco and ultimately ended the use of GE Talaria for major video shows such as Academy Awards. This was especially true as brightness climbed over the 5000 lumen level with the Roadie from Electrohome and the Power series from DPI.
In recent years we have seen a lot of core chip and optical engine development on the part of Texas Instruments and their projector manufacturing partners. On the chip side we have seen the increased contrast of the "dark metal" chip and advances in resolution from 800x600 to 1024x768 to 1280x720 to 1400x1050 and in 2006 the new 1080 chip ready to meet the dawn of the HD onslaught. On the digital cinema side we have seen the original SXGA chip giving way to the newest 2K DLP chips in projectors with over 25,000 lumens.
It would be inaccurate to say that DLP is without competitors in the chip-of-the-day competition. In the 3 chip arena there are several developments from JVC and Sony with their LCoS based technologies that give TI a run for their money in performance if not in market share. While DLP does have their 2K chip, there are the new 4K developments at the competition that impresses all who see them. With the superior chip fill factor (read this as less screen door effect on large screen surfaces) of LCoS and their outstanding contrast in local areas as well as overall contrast, the war has not yet been won by the DLP or LCoS camps. The beat goes on.
On the single chip side of things DLP has the most economical and compact solutions but they still fight battles with the dreaded "rainbow effect" where a small percentage of viewers see a rainbow or breakup of colors around images. The new color wheel designs have nearly eliminated the effect but the nay-sayers make the most out of this rare but real phenomenon. One recent answer is to use advanced LED technology and even laser technology as illumination sources as well as providing the color for the chip. Stay tuned because this may be the next big story in DLP development.
Lest we forget, the real impact of DLP has been in the every day lives of consumers. While 3 chip DLP projectors and the emergence of digital cinema is exciting, the more mundane but more prolific single chip rules the roost from our offices to our homes. Ian McMurray, former marketing guru at Texas Instruments said it best, "One weird, unique thing about DLP is that I can't think of another technology that serves the market with both projectors at 2 lbs. and those with 17,500 lumens. Also with the new large screen TVs, home cinema, digital cinema, there isn't another technology out there that covers the broad span that DLP does. You can bet there will be 1 lb projectors, or 25K lumen projectors, and there is only one technology it will be based on: DLP.
It is late and time to go. I have a date with my Samsung 56" inch DLP television, ESPN, and a good glass of wine. In the morning I am going to do a presentation for a client with my three pound Proxima DLP and my 4 pound laptop. Hmmperhaps it is time to go lighter and shop for that 2 pound DLP pocket projector that will make my life even easier! Happy 75th anniversary to Texas Instruments and Happy 10th to the folks at DLP.