Letter from America: InfoComm 2014 Report - Do I Really Really Want a Laser Projector?

By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires. Yes, I know that part of this month's title harks back to an old hit by The Spice Girls, who were not American at all, but given that the focus at the moment is on the World Cup, that Mrs Beckham is a long-term resident of LA, and that Scary Spice (aka Mel B, who is actually a sweetie) constantly appears on US TV singing competitions, perhaps I've got a world view, so let's go with the flow. Indeed, my question for the month takes its cue from the repeat line "I'll tell you what I want, what I really really want". But the question is, do you 'really REALLY want it?" Having recently returned from the heat of Las Vegas where I was for yet another trade show, this time, InfoComm, the item in question is the laser projector. Just the mere mention of the word 'laser' makes these projectors sound cool and futuristic, which perhaps they may be, but before jumping on the bandwagon, I thought it might be worth reviewing some of the pros and cons of these units before you suggest to a client that they take the plunge. [caption id="attachment_5983" align="aligncenter" width="600"] The displays that attracted the most viewers at InfoComm were the ones with World Cup matches, regardless of technology. Everyone had a great time, except for the guy sitting next to me from Spain. [/caption] For those who are not familiar with InfoComm, it is the main trade show for the institutional/educational/house of worship market, run by the people who are also behind ISE. Going back 75 years to predecessor shows, where the main products were 16mm movie, 'overhead', slide and film-strip projectors, InfoComm has, to some extent, always been about displays. [caption id="attachment_5984" align="aligncenter" width="600"] These were the types of projectors on the exhibit floor during the early days of what is now InfoComm (clockwise from top left): a Bell & Howell 16mm Filmosound with the speaker in the case cover; an ancient Viewlex 35mm filmstrip projector; a Sony Vidimagic, which used a single CRT and a lens in an early attempt at video projection; a Kodak Ektagraphic III slide projector.[/caption] In more contemporary times, this was where AV directors went to look at LCD panels for overheads, where the famous 'Projection Shoot Out' took place for many years, and where we have seen video projectors move from CRT to LCD/DLP/LcoS, and from lamps to LED, and now, increasingly, to lasers as the light source. Unlike in the song however, I won't tell you what I want. Rather, I hope to give you some information to help you decide if this is what you, or rather your clients, really really want. Laser Versus Lamp To start, the obvious appeal of laser projectors is that there is no need to change bulbs, as there are none. Yes, over time, the laser's performance will degrade to a point where the module may have to be replaced, but even if the unit is on for seven hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year, you are looking at over eight years. Compare that to the lifespan to half-brightness for a lamp-driven projector, and you see that there will be no more calls right before that big show or championship event. Clearly, that's a plus in favour of laser. [caption id="attachment_5987" align="aligncenter" width="400"] A peek inside the light engine of a Sony laser projector.[/caption] On the other hand, there definitely is a cost premium for the laser units, varying with the brand and light output, that can be anywhere from 25% to as much as 50% above a conventionally-illuminated projector. Yes, conventional bulbs are expensive, and you can total up the replacement cost and see if it makes up the difference. I will put some coins in the pot, but I doubt it is a clean match-up. Total Cost of Ownership Indeed, when comparing laser to lamp projectors, it is not an obvious ROI, but perhaps a TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). Don't just think of the savings from avoiding the cost of the replacement bulbs, but the money saved by the client for eliminating service calls to swap things out as well. Moreover, lamps degrade over time, and while you may not need to go out to replace them until brightness is at 50% or even less, there is enough of a change over time that you might need to have a service call once or twice to recalibrate the colour in a critical viewing environment. Factor those service trip costs into the TCO equation along with the service and material cost of a lamp change over the life of the unit to see what the TCO is, because at the end of the day, that is what will be needed for the client to make a proper decision. Uniformity The uniformity over time for laser projectors leads to another point that is, perhaps, more important in the multi-projector installations and edge-blended displays found in the commercial display world than in consumer applications. However, given that some bespoke installation clients do request a 'private sports bar' with multiple screens, or perhaps might use two or more projectors to create a large curved screen, this isn't as far off as it might seem. With the variance in light output and the resulting impact on image colour over time being something that cannot be allowed in these types of installations, re-calibration has to be done much more frequently since the shift in any two or more projectors will differ widely. You can't have one looking brighter than the other, or one more of one colour than another. Yes, you can reset, but the client won't like that cost. Think TCO, not just initial cost, when presenting a laser projector-based solution! Mount it Any Way You Want Yet another interesting benefit of laser projectors is that they really don't care much whether the unit is sitting flat (e.g. feet flush to the ceiling mount or to a table), whether the unit is mounted vertically, or if it is spun around at any angle in between. Trust me, that isn't something you want to try with a conventional projector, yet it is like falling off the proverbial log for lasers. Indeed, Panasonic demonstrated a laser projector at InfoComm, as it did at NAB in April, on an apparatus that moved it 90 degrees from full flat to full vertical and then back again with no issues at all. When you have a challenging installation position situation, this 'mount it any way you want' ability of lasers may be worth its weight in, well, high-priced lamps! [caption id="attachment_5988" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Panasonic's laser projector half way through the rotation on a movable stand. Try this with your average bulb-illuminated projector![/caption] Colour and Brightness Unmentioned here are the things that you will have to judge for yourself when comparing laser- to LED- to lamp-based systems, as well as the hybrids from the likes of Casio. There, I specifically mean colour and brightness. At the Display Summit that ran two days before InfoComm, I had the opportunity to view similar laser- and lamp-based systems from the major brands side by side, and one wasn't markedly better than the other overall. Some patterns and colour segments gave an edge to one technology, some to the other. Sorry, this is one that you will have to judge for yourself and then factor into the price. Given all of this, what do we really, really want? Do you go with the sexy new thing that certainly has a cool ring to it, or stick with the tried and true until the cost comes down for the new kid in town? At this point the answer is my usual 'definitely maybe.' Were I provisioning a multi-projector job where image match and colour consistency were the critical metrics, even more so than price, laser does seem to have an edge. For other installations, it is way more of a toss-up, particularly in the consumer side of the market. While I have been speaking here about news from an industrial-orientated show, I leave you with a look both backwards and forwards. At his CES keynote back in January, Sony's Kaz Hirai showed a slide of a 147", short-throw, 4K/UHD laser projector said to be available for sale later this year. [caption id="attachment_5986" align="aligncenter" width="600"] A top view of the Sony 147", 4K, laser short-throw projector. Note the very industrial finish, but that it is also extremely close to the screen.[/caption] We now find that it is well along the way - an industrial cousin of the consumer unit was shown on the floor at InfoComm, with delivery slated for this year. Not as white and sexy as the consumer prototype, lacking the built-in speakers that most of us wouldn't want anyway, and adding the ability to be floor- or ceiling-mounted, this is something to watch. Conclusion With nay-sayers complaining that 'you need a big screen to get the full benefit of 4K/UHD', projection may see a huge growth with products such as the Sony unit and others sure to follow. What do we really, really want? Great products that deliver value and reliability to our clients, profit to us and more jobs from referrals. Laser projectors might not offer that for every job today, but they just may sooner or later! Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. You can contact Michael by leaving a message below or via the HiddenWires LinkedIn group, and follow him on Twitter @captnvid. Comments on this article are welcome. See below.

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