No technology innovation has received more attention and produced less results than that of laser illumination. The technology is challenged, in numerous ways. But manufacturers gloss over the messy bits, feeling the need to demonstrate it and having differing motivations to do so.
The business model for laser projection is similar to that of outfitting a home with solar energy. In the effort to save on monthly energy bills, one commits to a large capital expenditure to purchase the laser illuminator. With a payoff period estimated to be in the 8-10 year range, it would be unwise to anticipate a rush to install it.
The technology itself is challenged. The color primary spectrums generated by lasers are so narrow that a visual artifact called metamerism occurs. When metamerism is present, two visual experts standing side-by-side can see somewhat different colors on screen. Most noticeably, the white point will shift for some observers, creating a color cast to the entire image. The effect is of such great concern to cinematographers that the ASC created a study group to further evaluate and document it.
Manufacturers don’t talk about metamerism for a few reasons. They are interested in generating patents for the technology, and don’t want to reveal their work in this area. Given the pending “sales cliff” for digital cinema equipment, it pays for some departments to convey the promise of laser illumination, extending jobs a few extra years as they create an expectation that the technology will soon be commercial. But underneath lies the bigger concern that the solution to metamerism may not be backwards compatible with existing projectors. An effective solution to metamerism with laser illumination is to increase the number of primaries, from 3 to 4 or possibly 5. Current projectors are limited to three color primaries, having only 3 independent light modulators, one per primary. Adding more color primaries will increase the number of light modulators needed, significantly increasing the expense of the light engine due to the additional modulators and the accompanying optics required. It’s conceivable, but very unlikely, that additional color primaries can be accommodated by existing 3-light-modulator projector designs. Such a retrofit would be comprised by the optics design and would likely impact both higher frame rate capability and 3D capability.
Barco, Christie, NEC, and Sony each demonstrated laser projectors this year, with Christie taking the lead by presenting Hugo in 3D with an impressive 63,000 lumens of light at IBC in Amsterdam. Observers describe the laser illumination system as being the size of a Volkswagen minibus, and noisier. If your projection booths are ready for this, please raise your hand.
And then there’s the government regulatory issues, which no doubt will receive much higher priority than the deficit, but we don’t recommend holding your breath in anticipation.
The key indicator as to the practicality of a new technology is the estimates one hears for bringing it to market. For two years in a row, we’ve heard that it will take 1-3 years. The most believable guess heard this year was from Real D, who has no laser technology on the table but a rational interest in brighter images, estimating 3-5 years. We’ll learn soon enough what guesses 2013 brings.