Laser projectors made news this month, both at ShowEast and in Los Angeles. This is one of those areas where the more one learns, the less one seems to know.
Regulatory bans are a major hurdle for laser illumination in cinemas. In a report given at ShowEast, Bill Beck, chair of the Laser Illuminated Projector Association (LIPA), and founder of Laser Light Engines (LLE), announced that laser light sources could be approved for use in the United States as early as first quarter next year. The likelihood of this happening wasn’t quantified, but Mr. Beck wasn’t optimistic that the politics would fall in place for this to happen. If not early 2014, then he predicts that it’ll take a few years to achieve regulatory approval.
Several demonstrations took place this month, and more will take place in November. At ShowEast, Christie demonstrated two prototype laser projectors in 3D configuration, showing 3D images at 14 ft-L. Each projector was equipped with RealD’s XL light doubler. Christie’s demo still uses multiple vibrating elements mounted to the rear of the screen to remove laser speckle. The company did not claim its demonstration projector was production ready, so pricing was not discussed.
NEC made a splash at ShowEast by announcing the availability of a 10,000 lumen laser projector next March for $38,000. NEC says 10,000 lumens is low enough to not require regulatory approval in public cinemas. NEC and Laser Light Engines will also conduct demos in the Los Angeles area in November with side-by-side viewing of a xenon illuminated projector.
Barco may seem like the odd man out by showing off its sound system at ShowEast rather than its laser projector. But back in Los Angeles, Barco’s laser projector was privately demonstrated in one-on-one sessions, addressed later in this report. Of all the demonstrations held, I was most impressed with Barco’s.
There are clearly different plays afoot, and there are strategic reasons for this. LLE is the startup in the laser illumination business, and is eager to show investors that there is a market for laser light illuminators. It found a friend in NEC, who is looking for an edge in the few remaining markets that exist, where smaller screens are common. Cast in this light, perhaps a 10,000 lumen laser projector makes sense. Christie’s parent company, Ushio, recently acquired Necsel, a manufacturer of lasers. With that affiliation, one would expect Christie to have a mandate to aggressively develop and promote laser projection technology. Ushio is obviously advantaged to stimulate the market for laser projectors, and would be happy to sell Necsel lasers to other manufacturers, too. Barco, on the other hand, is in no rush at all. It does not own a laser company, and it has no difficulty scoring sales in today’s marketplace, what small number is left to score. While it’s done the research and produced its own very credible laser projector, Barco believes it will take a while for the economics of the technology to make sense. Until then, it would rather have exhibitors spend their extra bucks on its sound system.
Barco is not poo-pooing lasers, however. Its demonstration in Burbank provides excellent insight as to the challenges introduced with laser illumination, and will provide the company with valuable feedback. The demonstration is one-on-one, not a highly advertised demo, and not available for large audiences. The focus of the demo is to walk the viewer through unexpected issues with color. I invited a cinematographer, Bert Dunk, of SIRT, to join me. We viewed side-by-side images from both a xenon-illuminated projector and a laser-illuminated projector.
First, I’ll note that Barco’s projector design utilizes multiple lasers tuned to different frequencies, broadening the spectrum for each primary, and diminishing the effects of both speckle and metamerism. Viewed side-by-side, the laser projector looked very good. Barco cleverly threw in some slides of white at different color temperatures, and took note of our sense of color cast to compare with that of others. This is a good way of learning if metamerism is at play. Identical color squares were then projected with laser and xenon, which provided the viewer with an interesting twist. It was apparent that color using xenon wasn’t the same as that use laser. While we talk about metamerism where each individual sees something slightly different, a corollary problem is that different looking colors can have identical measurements using a spectroradiometer. This effect was evident, even though Barco’s projector used several laser frequencies per primary. It’s a stunning observation, as it indicates that setting up a laser projector won’t be business as usual.