Until recently, projection video and LCD video displays were easily perceived as two distinct silos, separated as much by scale as by technology. Sure, a 50-inch LED-backlit LCD panel looked equally impressive in either a sports bar or in someone’s living room, but it was an entire league away from a 20-foot diagonal HD projection. But then LCDs began getting bigger and better — LG’s 100-inch screen leapfrogged Sharp’s 84-inch and then 90-incher, after which Sharp fought back with a 108-inch Aquos — and Christies tile-based video walls can scale to sizes almost as wide as can be imagined, all while substantially outshining projection video and at a competitive cost.
In the last two years, we’ve been seeing LCD screens taking on jobs in education, entertainment, corporate and healthcare applications that once would have automatically been assigned to a projector. Rise of the Machines seems to be giving way to Rise of the Big Glass Screens.
That appears to be what’s on the minds of the folks putting on the Projection Summit, with this year’s conference, the twelfth, scheduled for June 10-11, in Orlando just ahead of InfoComm. A press release they sent out in February announcing the conference used language suggesting that a turf battle — a perceptual one, at least — was brewing. “The projection industry doesn’t always receive the same amount of attention that the LCD industry receives, but this doesn’t mean activity is stagnant,” the release asserted. “In fact, just the opposite is true…. The industry is now poised to begin a serious transition away from lamp-based projection to offer LED, hybrid and laser-based solutions covering the full range of light output. This will reshape the competiveness of projection in the coming years.”
If that sounds to you like an entity looking at what it has suddenly realized is a potentially existential threat, you’re right. Projectors are hardly an endangered species, but they are facing significant encroachment by flat-panel screens on a number of fronts for a number of good reasons. The architecture of conference and meeting spaces is changing, trending to smaller break-out rooms; even larger ballrooms are designed with more reconfiguration capabilities, and those smaller spaces are better suited to multiple flat panels that can be easily repositioned as the rooms’ dimensions change. Then there’s the rise of video teleconferencing, thanks to the free services like Skype and Google+ Hangouts, and the proliferation of affordable paid services such as Vidyo, Vsee, LifeSize, ooVoo and others. Dual flat-panel displays are at the perfect eye-level height from which to hang webcams and construct quick immersive environments; mounting a camera below a projection screen places the camera at table level or even lower. Then there’s the maintenance aspect — projectors need costly replacement bulbs; flat-panels displays last 15 times as long as a bulb — the typical flat panel lasts between 30,000 and 60,000 hours while a bulb generally has a lifespan of around 2,000 hours — and you’ll buy the display replacement at half the price next time.
» Fighting Back
Projection world appears poised to get aggressive about what it seems to feel is a lack of perceptual love. Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media, the Connecticut-based market research, consulting and publishing firm that puts on the Projection Summit, agrees that projection is losing ground, perceptual and real, to flat-panel products. “You can get more LCDs in larger form factors, bezels are shrinking, and LCDs are competing more effectively with projection now,” he concedes in a conversation.
However, Chinnock says that the challenge presented by a more muscular flat-panel sector is also stimulating technical and market innovation on the part of projection system manufacturers. Regarding the former, he cites rapidly developing solid-state illumination technologies, which replace conventional bulbs — the projector’s fundamental Achilles heel with its need for frequent and often costly replacement — with LED and lasers. The latter is addressed with a heightened emphasis on projection’s ability to scale, specifically to its ability to achieve 3D mapping — the covering of entire buildings and other spaces with transformational illumination. “That’s one of the things that sets projection apart — the ability to use three or four or five blended projectors to create a seamless image across huge areas,” says Chinnock.
But solid-state illumination is no slam-dunk yet. In the fundamental R-G-B equation, red and blue LEDs can achieve the power needed for projection, but green still lags in that regard. The solution several manufacturers have implemented is to include a rotating phosphor wheel that, when struck by light from a blue laser or LED, produces green light at a sufficient level of power. These hybrid projectors can reach power levels up to around 4,000 lumens and growing. But more critically, they extend the operational lifespan of the projector to as much as 20,000 hours, Chinnock estimates, all without bulb replacements. “That,” he says firmly, “is a serious game changer.”
Other technical improvements the Projection Summit aims to showcase include advancements in short-throw projection; projection technology for near-to-eye and heads-up display applications; and the use of gesture, pen and other user interfaces to run projectors. The event’s agenda suggests that projection technology and applications have a lot of headroom left in them. When I ask Chinnock if, in the future, projection and flat-panel formats will evolve to become more competitive with, or complementary to, each other, he responds that it might be both. Flat panels have proven their worth in many market sectors, but they will never be able to scale the way multiple blended projectors can, suggesting that each type of product may come to dominate a different part of the market spectrum. But Chinnock’s not yet ready to concede that battlefield when it comes to education, corporate and other conventional markets, saying, “I think the projector still has a few new tricks up its sleeve.”