To paraphrase the muscular governor from the fair state of California, "this article is not about the girlie men projectors out there". This is not to say that the less endowed LCD and DLP projectors under 3K lumens do not have a place in rental and staging but the heart of the industry is the big gun that provides all the power and stamina that the proverbial tri athlete of our industry demands. This is where I started in the industry and now it is time to come full circle and take a look at what is out there under the heading of "must have".
Before going forward, I want to make a clear distinction between large venue projectors for rental and staging and those used for digital cinema. There are huge differentiators between the two categories/applications not the least of which is size, weight, portability, etc. but the big difference is the application itself. As our friends at DLP (Texas Instruments) say large venue projectors are designed for portable applications focusing on video and graphics while the digital cinema projectors are all about the needs of the film industry and meeting their evasive cinema standards.
As with all display technologies today, we are in an evolutionary phase of technology development. That is to say that the core technologies be they LCD, LCoS, or DLP have been developed and now it is time to improve the breed. Before you lose interest because you are only impressed with giant leaps, think again. It is the developmental stages that are the most interesting because these are the things that make the technologies more useful in the real world and improve the return on investment that is so necessary for that elusive thing we call profit. It is all about benefits and not features!
The fist thing that sticks out in my mind is the nature of the construction of large venue projectors. If you look at DPI, Christie, and Barco you will see purpose-made rental and staging projectors in ruggedized chassis designs with really effective/protective rigging "skeletons" surrounding each unit. The units themselves are built in modular fashions for ease of maintenance and parts swapping in the field. The lamp modules are easier to change and the technicians are better protected than ever before in changing lamps. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the build quality that is now being designed into these industrial grade projectors. Once again, it is all about saving time on the job, using projectors in multiple applications, and improving the ROI for the rental company.
On the resolution side, the bigger the image, the more noticeable the pixels so in the ever increasing world of HD with 1920 x 1080 resolutions, the goal is to produce a huge image and eliminate any pixel artifacting. In other words the more pixels the better on the big screens. Inside the projectors, it is no stretch to say that DLP technology dominates on the high end. Their 2048 x 1080 chip is amazing and at the risk of starting up the display wars once again, the DLP based projectors do not burn in nor do they have image retention, delamination or other catastrophic occurrences that render them useless in extreme duty situations. At the lower end of the brightness and cost spectrum we will begin to see the 3 chip LCD projectors at a native 1920 x 1080 resolution and they may well be very competitive but that is a topic for another article. The Holy Grail in resolution is the 1920 x 1080 DTV-HD Standard and the less processing or scaling to project those images, the better.
Along with improved resolution is increased contrast. The marketing hype for projectors claims up to 6000:1 contrast and this is just that, marketing hype. In actual tests, these machines have achieved over 2000:1 contrast (this is very good by the way) and this is a vast improvement over the less than 1000:1 contrast previously achieved. As a point of reference, 35mm color film in a first run theater produces "only" 1000:1 contrast on screen when the film is fresh out of the can and this is only for the first 20 showings. After those first 20 showings, the image and contrast degrades. Contrast on a digital projector remains high and they have finally broken the film contrast barrier. Once you get past what the human eye can discern in terms of contrast, it becomes a moot point. It is like signal to noise in audio, anything under 1% you cannot hear unless there is a dog somewhere in the family tree. Now that the top projectors have achieved the status of color film, the remaining issues are now uniformity and local area contrast improvements which are still in need of some work. When coupled with ever increasing brightness, this is quite an accomplishment and every bit of this increase can be seen and appreciated on screen.
The heavy weight champ of brightness is still the Barco XLM H25 producing a stellar 28k lumens followed closely by the challenger from Christie with their Roadie 25k. True large venue models are available from DPI, Christie, and Barco in 1K lumen increments from 2k up to 16k. The real story here is increased lumen per watt efficiency with smaller and better optical engines. The result is more brightness, better heat dissipation and longer lamp life. It is interesting to note that the high brightness on screen has a two-fold benefit. The first issue is one of rejecting high ambient light in an event. A washed out image due to extraneous light is not acceptable. The second benefit relates back to contrast and uniformity. You can adjust the brightness to give you the best combination of image clarity and definition in the continuously changing environments of the rental and staging world.
While on the topic of lamps we might as well start another thread for discussion. We have the xenon versus metal halide argument to address. If we cut through the marketing hype once again, the xenon lamp is the champ for brightness, colorimetry (e.g. replicates sun light most accurately), and color tracking as the white light from the lamp decays. The metal halide manufacturers win out with size, life of the lamp, and cost. All the large venue and extreme venue projectors use xenon arc lamps as do the digital cinema projectors in use today. Most of the projectors under 6k lumens use metal halide lamps like the UHP series.
While on the topic of lamps a new product from DPI stands out. Their new dVision series is quite interesting. This lineup incorporates a dual lamp design with increased lamp life. It also features a .95" DarkChip3TM DMD for native 1920 x 1080 native DTV-HD resolution. It takes the color wheel technology to a new level by incorporating dual seven-segment color wheels to produce a user adjustable 500-2500 ANSI lumens along with outstanding contrast contrast. With their typically excellent build quality this could be a good variable lumen workhorse to consider.
Another one of my personal picks to pass along is the unusually named Christie Twist. Names aside it is a really useful module. It solves the problem of raster shaping and edge blending in a fixed matrix display. They refer to it as image warping and edge blending. Very Star Trek of them but it can expand the creative capabilities of a projector and the visual impact is something to behold.
On the lens side of things, technology/applications may be heating up as well. The use of anamorphic optics and motorized optical sleds, native 2.35:1 aspect ratios are becoming the rage in high end home cinema applications. We may see widescreen 16 x 9 move to the more immersive 2.35:1 aspect ratio in the events world as well. As Mike Levy of DPI points out, "If so, since no 2.35 native aspect ratio projectors exist, Stagers will need to understand how to employ the secondary anamorphic optics." Stay tuned for more on this.
Finally we come to sources and signals. With the rapid advancements in all-digital sources, signal distribution (primarily DVI) and displays, more stagers are deploying end to end digital systems (source, distribution, display). End to end digital systems deliver a long list of benefits, ranging from system simplicity to signal integrity to final on-screen image quality. In one of my display seminars I take people on an analog to digital journey and I hope to explore this journey in future articles.
So as we go out into the staging world, to make our clients shine, we can be happy we have mature display technologies with better built and more efficient projectors. The end result is much better performance and a significant increase in ROI. Not a bad story to tell, with not a revolution in site.