October 2012 Issue
Video World

The Lasers Are Coming! (To a Theater Near You)

Laser Projecters are ComingIn the events biz, it’s no secret that COE (Cost Of Ownership) is an ongoing issue. There’s one area in particular that rings up the cash register on a regular basis — namely, xenon lamp replacement. Whether the projector’s part of the rental inventory or permanently installed in a theater, it’s the same situation. In terms of lamp runtime, at somewhere between 600 and 2000 hours, the lamp needs to be replaced — and the cost (per lamp) for these little hand-made high-pressure xenon beauties can top $1,000, depending on the wattage. And speaking of COE, we’ll disregard the fact (for now) that each time you light that 7K lamp, another turbine has to spin up at Hoover Dam.

A solution is at hand. It’s not coming next week, or even next year — but it is on the horizon. Almost every professional projector manufacturer has teams of engineers and scientists working out the details, and it’s destined to affect both the cinema and the rental/staging marketplace. Much to the chagrin of the xenon bulb makers, the lasers are coming.

Inside the Engine

The solution is a laser-based light source inside the projector’s “engine,” replacing the traditional xenon light source. We’re not talking about those green scanning lasers that light up concert stages with beams, mirrors, ripples and special effects. Instead, this new technology combines the coherent light from ultra-bright red, green and blue lasers to produce white light. That light is guided down the projector’s integrator rod, shaped, sharpened, and directed into the prism — in much the same manner as the traditional xenon light path.

There are two big COE advantages to these laser engines. The first is efficiency and cost savings. Brightness increases dramatically, and the effective cost per watt drops considerably when you don’t have to replace lamps at regular intervals. At the most recent CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, Barco showed a prototype that produced over 55K ANSI lumens on a unity gain screen, 70 feet wide. To the professional, this is a remarkable number, since the major manufacturers are typically pushing 30K lumens with 7K xenon lamps these days.

To the layman, however, 55K is insanely bright, which brings up an important point. With the ability to blast over 50K lumens on screen, it might just solve the brightness concerns that are haunting 3D movie ticket sales. Customers are often saying that 3D movies are darker — and, in fact, if you factor in the 3D polarizer, the porthole (covered with cobwebs, of course), the screen itself and the 3D glasses, they actually are darker. To fix it, you gotta throw more light.

Scorsese Speaks

DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) is the organization that sets digital cinema standards. For a 2D movie, DCI recommends 14 foot lamberts (FL) as the target brightness — a number that’s easily reached with xenon technology. For a 3D movie, however, DCI would simply love to see 14 FL on screen, but it’s hard (if not impossible) to achieve with xenon at typical lens-to-screen distances. As a result, there’s no definitive DCI spec for 3D, and exhibitors end up running 3D movies somewhere between 3 and 6 FL. No wonder customers fled the auditorium showing the latest Pirates of the Caribbean in 3D and crossed the hall to watch the 2D version instead.

To corroborate the issue, Martin Scorsese was asked at a CinemaCon filmmaker session to comment on the brightness issue. He replied, “If [cinema screens] are too dark and you can’t see, why should they come back and watch another 3D film?” So indeed, lasers might be the ticket to solving the 3D brightness issue — and in the events business (aside from the redundancy concerns), ultra-bright laser projection might just render double-stacking unnecessary.

Longevity, and a Nice Gamut

The second big COE advantage for laser projection would certainly be maintenance. A laser engine is predicted to last upwards of 30,000 hours before maintenance and calibration would be required on the light source. This little fact sounds highly appealing to the theater owner or the rental/staging company — it translates to quite a few matinees.

The reason for the longevity falls into the realm of physics. The laser’s output wavelength doesn’t shift or deteriorate over time, as compared to xenon — and it’s highly stable. Once laser projectors actually hit the assembly line, we’ll re-visit these predictions — but I’m fairly certain that the “aging” characteristics will be remarkable by comparison.

And while we’re talking advantages, a laser-based projection system will have a far-wider color gamut than a xenon-based system. In layman’s terms, color gamut is the full range of colors found within any given image. With a laser projector, colors will be richer, deeper and far more vivid than a xenon projector, thus delivering a more lifelike presentation to the viewer. Considering that current three-chip xenon systems can produce over 35 trillion colors on screen, the number for lasers must be staggering.

Hurdles, Speckles and Regs

Despite all of these advantages, all is not rosy in laser-land. The technology is progressing, but there are major hurdles to overcome. The cost for laser technology is too high at the present time, and certainly not economically feasible for the theater owner or the rental/staging company.

From a technical standpoint, the manufacturers are gradually overcoming the “speckling” problem that’s inherent with lasers. Because lasers tightly concentrate light waves of the same frequency, solid regions of blue, red and green can produce minute variations in intensity. To see this for yourself, shine any consumer red laser pointer at a white screen, and you’ll see “speckles.” Rest assured, the engineers in their little white lab coats are working this out.

Another major hurdle is government regulations, which currently oversee the transportation, safety, and a thousand other issues revolving around the technology. To this end, the manufacturers have partnered with a new organization called LIPA (Laser Illuminated Projector Association). LIPA provides a forum for the latest industry laser news, education, and the coordination of the industry’s efforts towards approving new regulations. For more information on LIPA, visit http://lipainfo.org.

Then there’s the safety issue. The pathway to overcoming the perceived danger with bright lasers is going to be a difficult one, but not insurmountable. Inherently, it’s just a beam of ultra-bright light through the system, just like xenon. Logically, proper safety measures have to be taken, just like xenon. Whether you look down the lens of a xenon projector or a laser projector, permanent eye damage will result, and education will be required, just like with xenon systems.

With safety as an absolute top concern, the industry is working towards proper standardized signage, safe projector placement heights (above the audience), and a healthy dose of common sense — just like the safety measures currently in place for xenon. Rest assured, the designers will ensure that each projector’s internal laser source is safe to operate, safe to project, and safe for personnel be in close proximity to the projector itself.

And remember — once you’ve seen the demonstrations and the prototypes in action, you’ll be as convinced that I am that, with images so bright from edge-to-edge, with colors so vivid and rich, this is what cinema should be. Be patient, the lasers are coming.


Paul Berliner is president of Berliner Productions in Davis, CA.

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