Several announcements were made this month highlighting milestones for laser-illuminated projection. First was the announcement by IMAX of a technology partnership with laser supplier Necsel, and confirmation by VP Greg Foster of the company’s intent to introduce its first laser projection system at the end of this year. Sadly, also announced was the closing of operations at Laser Light Engines, the company that first demonstrated the viability of the laser-illuminated projector.
That IMAX is pursuing laser-illuminated projectors is not news. It offered its first demonstration of a prototype laser projector last November. But IMAX is the first company to announce commitments of over 60 sites where laser projection is to be installed. Reportedly, a majority of the installations are slated for China, where presumably regulators will not restrict use of the technology in cinemas.
IMAX’s partnership with Necsel is also not surprising, in that Ushio-owned Necsel is currently the only viable provider of lasers suitable for use in digital projectors. Notably, Ushio is also the parent company of Christie Digital. In the twists that can occur in cinema, IMAX’s laser technology utilizes intellectual property acquired through Kodak, further developed in partnership with Barco, a competitor of Christie. Although Christie has attempted on occasion to play up its sibling relationship, Necsel can only thrive in this emerging market by not showing favoritism. It’s deal with IMAX, and inclusively, Barco, indicates that it’s managing its business well.
Laser Light Engines can claim bittersweet success in pushing cinema towards laser illumination. LLE had not developed a projector of its own, positioning itself as an outsourced manufacturer of laser light sources to the major projector companies. The DLP projector companies, however, already had Texas Instruments as a common technology between them, causing them to work hard to differentiate themselves. Identifying laser illumination as a technology where competition could take place, and R&D departments eager to take on new areas, there was little room for a common laser illumination provider such as LLE. LLE, however, did develop an impressive patent portfolio in the area of laser illumination, which the company will continue to mange.
Simply offering the ability to produce more light may require impressive technology, but offers little benefit to audiences, outside of brighter 3D. It’s not surprising, then, that higher contrast is an area where laser projector manufacturers are focusing. IMAX announced this month that it can achieve a stunning 8000:1 contrast ratio with its laser projection technology. Christie says it can reach 3000:1, while Barco quotes 2000:1.
When addressing higher contrast, black levels must be improved. This becomes even more so as higher dynamic range is introduced. At the Infocomm Display Summit this month, I moderated a panel on cinema laser projection with representatives from Barco, Christie, and NEC. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, I asked each company about innovations in contrast and black levels. All said they were working on it, but no more insight than that was shared. The only company to date that appears to have intellectual property in this particular area is Dolby. Dolby’s patented technology for deep black levels requires an actively-controlled screen using electrophoretic technology – not the kind of technology one would expect to roll out to 100,000 cinemas around the world. All of this only makes IMAX’s touted achievements all the more interesting.