The idea of using laser light to replace xenon light in projectors has been on the table for some time. The technology has not only technical hurdles to cross, but economic and regulatory issues to deal with, as well.
The technical issues center around wavelength and speckle. Obtaining lasers that emit at the correct wavelength of light poses challenges to designers. Some designers approach the problem by transforming the digital cinema P3 color coordinates to a new set of coordinates based on readily available laser light wavelengths. Some use special processes to transform the light itself to generate the correct P3 primary wavelength. Speckle is a problem that occurs when coherent light is reflected from a less than perfectly smooth surface, such as a projection screen. Laser light is so precise in wavelength and phase that such anomalies will cause additive and subtractive behavior, resulting in bright and dark spots, which is how it got the name “speckle.”
When comparing the economics of laser light versus xenon light, one has to look at the associated costs over time. Xenon bulbs are relatively inexpensive, but over a period of several years, one needs lots of them. Lasers cost a lot more, but are said to be more efficient in power, and have longer lifetime. So for laser light to be attractive economically, it’s cost of ownership over its lifetime has to exceed that of xenon bulbs, and it has to do this over a period of time that is less than the lease on the cinema facility. No one likes to talk numbers, but presumably the numbers are getting more attractive.
The remaining obstacle is the regulatory problem. As reported at the ICTA conference this month, no distinction is made between a pinpoint of laser light having sufficient energy to burn holes in metal, and laser light sources used to illuminate large screens. To address regulatory issues, the industry lobby group Laser Illuminated Projector Association (LIPA) was formed last year. (Web site: http://lipainfo.org.) LIPA is organized and managed by the San Jose-based FlexTech Alliance trade organization, formerly known as the U. S. Display Consortium. While the presence of this organization is North American, the group claims to have taken on the enormous task of addressing the regulatory issues for laser illumination around the world.
The formation of a trade body to push new regulations is a smart idea. But how the group manages to accomplish its enormous goals remains to be seen. LIPA’s management team is the usual technology crew from its member companies, all of who have day jobs. But it did raise some cash. LIPA’s received $300,000 in membership dues in 2011, barely enough to hire one attorney.
A measure of readiness of laser illumination technology is the degree of investment that developers are willing to make towards changing the regulatory environment. Move too quickly, and you could enable your competition before you’re ready. That appears to be the game afoot. Sony needs laser illumination more than anyone if it’s to sell a credible projector that can light large screens. But Barco says laser illumination is a few years away. So while LIPA is a nice way to say that laser illumination has wide manufacturer support, Sony is probably doing the dirty work of real lobbying. And Barco and Christie would be happy if Sony did just that.