“Can’t get something for nothing” as the idiom goes. For all of the problems associated with projected light level that laser illumination is slated to solve, the other side of the coin is receiving a lot of study. It may not come to something, but it most likely won’t be nothing.
When the DLP Cinema projector was introduced, Texas Instruments controlled the light engine in every detail. The result was consistency in color reproduction among all of TI’s DLP Cinema licensees, and the high degree of confidence this generated in the marketplace.
Shift ahead to today, and TI has removed the leash from its licensees. This enables them to innovate in new ways, and as significantly, it lowers TI’s operating cost to maintain the DLP Cinema program. One of the ways in which its licensees are innovating is through the implementation of laser light sources. Laser light naturally introduces new primaries in the light engine, significantly different from the Xenon-based primaries that TI developed. To add to the confusion, the projector companies have exercised their unleashed freedom and are not implementing the same primaries in their laser-illuminated projector designs.
Differing primaries leaves reasonable room for doubt about the ability of colors to match across laser illuminated projectors of different makes. This has led some studios to express concern over producing different color timing versions to accommodate the variations in primary design. Respected color experts, however, say no such problems should exist.
One of the reasons that a problem is perceived is that laser-illuminated projectors are difficult to setup. Because the spectrum of each primary is so narrow, a characteristic referred to as “linewidth” in the laser trade, the ability of commonly used color meters to read color correctly is compromised. This produces confusing results where a xenon-illuminated and laser-illuminated projector will show identical colors side-by-side, yet the color produced by each projector measures wildly different.
The concern over color variations among studios is running so deep that DCI issued a web statement on July 9, stating:
“New projection light sources, such as laser, supporting wider color space and higher dynamic range have emerged that hold the promise of an improved cinematic presentation. DCI is creating additional specifications in order to take advantage of these capabilities, while retaining one of its core objectives: to ensure that distribution packages are interoperable on all systems. DCI seeks to ensure that next-generation DCPs will be accurately reproduced on any system with this capability.”
The statement was sufficiently vague to allow it mean that DCI wants a single distribution for high dynamic range (HDR) and normal images, or that it is an expression of concern over color variations due to differing primaries. Given DCI’s propensity to not consult with experts before making grand decisions, this statement has caught the attention of numerous experts. It’s cause for concern if DCI plans to compromise HDR by limiting it to the same DCP to be played on ordinary systems, and it’s cause for concern if DCI plans to issue a directive to force laser-illuminated projectors to use identical primaries. I have yet to find an expert eager to see DCI get involved in either area.
The sarcastically good news is that laser-illuminated projectors are unlikely to take the market by storm. Costs today run in the $8-$10 per lumen range. In other words, a 70,000 lumen projector will run somewhere between $560K to $700K. There is hope that these costs will reduce to the $3-$5 range, allowing the same projector to cost between $210K and $350K. Even at bargain prices like that, the studios shouldn’t be too concerned about their DCPs.