Can high brightness projectors fight off the threat from LED?

Just how is the landscape of high brightness projectors changing in the face of so much competition from LED videowalls? Paul Milligan finds out.

If you needed a huge screen on a job you installed a 20K or 30K projector, or maybe two or four or six blended together, that was how you did it.  In the last 2-3 years, we have seen an influx of competitively-priced low pixel pitch LED from China, and as a result is being installed in more and more projects.

It is now being specified ahead of high brightness projectors (which we are roughly categorising as units 20,000 lumens and above) in a lot of jobs. We have seen flat panel displays/touchscreens take a huge chunk of the market away from low-to-medium brightness projectors, so could high brightness projectors be under threat in the same way from LED? “Flexibility will help fend off LED videowalls,” says Anika Lauth, product manager projectors for German rental and staging company Lang.

“If you look at something like projection mapping, no LED could ever do that.  You can do projection on ice, on waterfalls, on dust, you can do rear projection on transmissive foils, that’s the reason why we think there will always be a market for projection.” However Lauth did admit for events like car shows, or in tv studios, LED was now replacing projection.  

The adaptability of projection could be key, Christie was recently involved in a project to project map the Empire State Building in New York. Doing that with LED would have involved a staggering amount of complexity and cost.  

Others don’t see it as a straight choice between the two technologies, feeling they can happily co-exist. “I don’t see a big threat from LED, both products are growing continuously very heavily, they are so different, and the benefits they provide are so different,” says Thomas Walter, section manager, strategic product marketing for NED Display Solutions.   Everyone we spoke to was aware of the threat from LED, but felt the flexibility of projection, and its lower cost per screen image inch than LED, would always keep it relevant. 

CT Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku

Others like Chris Axford, EMEA sales and marketing for Digital Projection, felt manufacturers had to be aware of the wider market for projection to survive, “Projectors don’t need saving from LED, but they need to evolve.  The real threat is if you aren’t prepared to evolve with what’s going on out there in the market.  The traditional projection market is under threat, LED is growing massively each year, but there are still loads of applications where projection is clearly the best option.  Projectors are brighter than ever, they are simple to setup, and maintenance-free (in the case of laser).”

One area where high brightness projection can excel over something like LED is in its ability to handle fast frame rates such as 120Hz.  “Where I see this being a massive, massive win for projectors is when you start to do interesting things with tracking,” says Tom Burford, technical development manager for global events staging company Creative Technology (CT). “If you are doing any sort of dynamic tracking of an object then you end up fighting against latency. Any latency means a lack of alignment.  Latency is the biggest killer for tracking screen objects, the reason why 120Hz is important is that if you are handling objects that are moving the acquisition of data is very quick, and the processing of the data is very quick.”

When buyers, such as CT or Lang go shopping for high brightness projectors, what is it that they prioritise in a unit? “For us the two main factors are image quality and servicing.  We want consistency across the image, and to see how well the projector will maintain its convergence,” says Burford. Lauth says Lang has three factors in mind when buying; high brightness, size/weight and power consumption.  What do manufacturers commonly get asked for in this product segment? “In fixed installations they want to optimise the operational costs, if you have installed a projector high up they don’t want to change lamps frequently, they are more interested in long running hours, and no maintenance, so they want laser.  In rental and staging they want brightness stability, easy colour matching for edge blending. 

Rental also needs small and lightweight products, if you put a large number of projectors in a venue, you can kill 20 seats in the audience or kill 100 seats, it makes a big difference to the operation and venue,” says Hartmut Kulessa, Panasonic’s European projector marketing manager.   

When we think of high brightness projectors, we think of big, heavy units with lamps to match, that pump out lots of heat in operation. Is it still tricky to keep them cool, or has technology progressed in that regard? At present there are two main methods, air cooling and liquid cooling. “The conventional method to cool a projector is to blow a lot of air inside, which creates difficulties with dust coming in,” says Kulessa.  This is where liquid cooling comes in, as Jeevan Vivegananthan, senior director, product management at Christie explains; “The sound or noise level of the projector is what adds a twist to the challenge of keeping the system running cool.  Rather than adding a lot of fans to force more air volume through the system, liquid cooling can help greatly reduce the temperature and noise level of projectors.” 

CT Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku

To help meet the challenge cooling present Panasonic is one company developing a solution.  It features a completely sealed optical engine with a hermitically-sealed block where the prism sits inside.  The system circulates air inside the system to cool the glass parts, it exchanges heat inside radiators using liquid cooling technologies so the air inside never touches the air outside, so no dust can come in.

We looked at how laser projectors were getting brighter last year (InAVate May 2016 p20) with the launch of Digital Projection’s 12,000 lumens laser phosphor unit.  If you are in the market for a 20K or 30K projector is lamp still the dominant technology, or is laser taking over? “Lamps are still the dominant illumination source for high brightness projection.  According to FutureSource data, 80% of projectors sold in the 10K lumen and above category were lamp-based in 2016.  There’s clearly market demand for lamp-based technology as lasers don’t always align as the best solution for each application.  They offer a lot of advantages, but not every application benefits from those advantages,” says Curtis Lingard, product manager, Christie. 

Lamps may rule this segment for now, but that will change says Lauth as more 20K/30K laser models continue to hit the market.  “Laser phosphor will be the dominant light source, at least for the next 5-10 years, because of maintenance, flexibility, weight, size, power, it covers all of those factors. We have 100 laser projectors at 30K already. We can see that manufacturers expect the 30K market to become more important than the 20K market.”  Laser projectors have many benefits, especially to rental and staging companies such as colour consistency, low maintenance, and lower running costs, so it’s no surprise to see manufacturers lining up to release 20K and upwards products.  

As an example Lang now estimates 40-50% of its projector stock is laser phosphor, and Burford from CT thinks “in five years’ time most projector stock will be laser, in 10 years you will be hard pressed to find a lamp in a projector.”

As mentioned above, when you think of 20K or 30K projectors in the past, they were tank-like units, sometimes weighing 100kg and needing several people (or heavy machinery) to lift them into place.  Is that still the case? And do customers really care, just as long as it’s bright enough? “The new 30K projectors are half the size and lighter than they were 10 years ago.  It’s useful if you have to rig a lot of projectors, because you will have limited weight loadings. Access is another issue, how can you get to the location of the projector? If its light enough you can carry it, if its heavy you’ll need a crane. Size and weight is not at the top of your list when spec’ing a projector. It’s a consideration, but not a huge one,” says Burford.

With advances in other technologies of 20K/30K projectors, do these big units still take as much time to setup out of a flight case as they did 10 years ago? “From a rigging point of view, it’s the same,” says Burford. From a setup point of view, the processing has got better over time, it has got marginally faster over time.  The way you calibrate a projector rig nowadays is a lot more sophisticated, most of that is down to computers becoming more powerful.   We can do things like automatic alignment, 6-point or 4-point calibrates, instead of having to manual warp using a crosslevel laser and lineup dots to areas of the screen.”

Through a mix of factors, such as cost, flexibility over LED, and the development of laser projectors, the reports of the death of the projector have been greatly exaggerated, and it will be remain the proAV world for years to come.  Although I’m not sure the same can be said for the projector lamp industry.

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