Laser projectors hit new heights of brightness

Early laser projector technology was limited to lower brightness models but now 10,000+ lumens brightness projectors are hitting the market. Paul Milligan looks at what’s available and what they offer.

Projector technology for decades meant one thing, a big lamp with a limited lifespan, pumping out images/video. 

It worked well, so there was no great desire for change.  There were innovations along the way, mainly in how colours were processed, with DLP and LCD fighting it out over which one was best.  But it was still the same lamp-based systems we had used for years and years.  In 2010 this changed when Casio released a lamp-free laser projector (actually a laser/LED hybrid model), capable of producing 2,000 lumens.  It was an instant success, especially in the education market, as it was bright enough to suit their needs, and cut out the cost (and time) of replacing lamps. 

For two years the rest of the market frantically tried to play catch up, until eventually every projector manufacturer worth its salt has its own laser projector capable of 2-3,000 lumens.  The next step was to produce one for the high-end pro-AV market, capable of producing 10,000 lumens and beyond, to take it from classrooms to visitor attractions and live events. 


First out of the gate was Digital Projection, when it launched a WUXGA projector capable of 12,000 lumens at ISE 2014.  This unit used a different form of laser projection to Casio, called laser phosphor.   This technology uses blue lasers, which are cost effective (unlike expensive red and green lasers), reliable and compact.  Laser phosphor projectors use a blue laser diode as the light source. To generate the three primary colours (red, green and blue) the laser diode shines laser light onto a phosphor wheel to create yellow (a mixture of red and green). Blue light is generated as the blue laser passes through a diffusion segment. The projector then sends the separated red, green and blue colours in sequence through a colour wheel, then onto an imaging surface (DLP or LCD chip for example), which sends the light through a lens and onto the projection screen.

At present the market for laser projectors producing 10,000 lumens or more is a small, but growing one.  Digital Projection has two models, with Barco and Christie and NEC also in the mix, with two different laser technologies (laser phosphor and RGB) available.  One new boy to the market is Epson, who launched a 3LCD 25,000 lumens laser phosphor model (along with two 12,000 lumens laser units) at ISE 2016.  It also announced a distribution deal with German rental and staging company Lang.  This caused quite a stir, especially as the Japanese manufacturer went public with the desire to become the number one in the laser phosphor market.  

Given that its new technology, how long does it take to get a new laser projector off the ground? Anywhere from 2-5 years it seems.  “We’ve had lots of requests for laser projectors and it’s taken us five years to launch this lineup,” says Charlotte Hone, product manager for projection, Epson.  “We took a complete look at our lineup and reinvented with, with a significant investment involved in that.  The biggest challenge was to develop a highly efficient laser light source but within a compact projector body, because that’s the way the market is going, they want a compact, light product, and we had to deliver upon that.”

The current state of play in the laser market sees three options for buyers; LED, laser phosphor and RGB laser.  LED produces projectors with a wide colour gamut, a long life, but you hit a brightness wall of 2,500-3,000 lumens.  Laser phosphor sits in the middle in terms of brightness and cost, and as such is the most prevalent in the market right now. 

Christie GS Series-3

At the top end is RGB, sometimes called ‘pure laser’. Dermot Quinn, Digital Projection COO and CTO, outlines the issues with RGB; “If you want to make a 100,000 lumens laser projector (with RGB) you can, but it will cost you $500,000 for the light sources.  You will also have to deal with chiller cabinets to cool the projector, and there are also health and safety concerns about direct laser energy coming out of the front of the projector.  Direct laser is great for colour, and puts lots of energy through the system, if you can pay for it and accommodate the logistic differences. “ 

Others such as Christie and Barco, who both have a long heritage in cinema projection, and something RGB is a natural home for, have grounds for optimism about it becoming a mainstream technology.   “We see RGB projection costs coming down faster than laser phosphor over the next 2-4 years.  We are on the cusp of a major technology breakthrough for the red and the green lasers,” says Allan Fernandes, product manager, entertainment solutions at Christie.  “Every laser projection manufacturer is working on green laser technology in their labs right now.  There are already red laser devices out there that do not need ambient cooling, and that will drop the price quite significantly.  In 3-5 years you will see RGB laser projectors for the broader market, rivaling laser phosphor, maybe even keeping that technology just for the lower end of the brightness scale.”

So what market sectors are showing the most interest in 10,000 lumens and above laser projection technology, and what do they like about it? The most obvious one is cinema, who like RGB because of the colour reproduction, but also because it saves on the cost of replacing lamps which are used 12-14 hours every day of the week.  In what could be a portent for the technology, Barco has just signed a deal in Texas to supply projectors for an all laser-powered 16-screen multiplex.  

The visitor attraction sector is another looking at investing in laser projection, because of low maintenance, consistence of image quality and lower TCO.  Simulation is another sector to express interest in laser says Quinn.  “CAVE systems are as strong at its weakest part, if one part goes down the whole thing looks stupid.  So they want to be able to have confidence the projectors they are running are stable, luminance-matched and colour-matched for a long time.  The benefits of solid state multiply when you have a multi-projector installation.” Quinn went on to give an example of a recent dome installation it had been involved with, which included 37 laser projectors. “If you did that with lamps you would be replacing bulbs and re-balancing them almost every day.”

Although cinema looks a great fit for laser, could the rental and staging market actually become the natural home for large scale laser projectors, given its advantages on reliability and uniformity? That’s certainly the case for Epson says Hone, and is where it is focusing its marketing efforts this year.  

Rental and staging companies are looking at it says Quinn, but it will take time.  “They haven’t moved over to laser yet because they are seeing through the product life cycles of the chassis they have.  Another factor is that some rental and staging companies keep their projectors and get payback on them in a relatively short space of time, and then resell them on.  Solid state projectors are likely to have a higher retained value if they have achieved an amount of life out on the road, so they might realise they have a greater retained value once they have been using them for a while.”

Everyone we spoke to admitted there was a price premium to laser projectors, especially as you move up the scale in brightness.  Given that it is a new technology and has taken 3-5 years to bring to market, it’s understandable this is the case.  Will the price differential between laser and traditional lamp projectors close as time goes on? “It already has for some segments,’ says Bill Beck, laser consultant, Barco.  “Our laser phosphor cinema series already beats xenon in TCO and has better image quality.  But it is wrong to think that laser is only about saving OPEX.  Make no mistake it does save in lamp costs and power consumption, but it also provides a platform for dramatically improved image quality.”

Given the huge benefits laser can provide, could we see a day when it is the only projector technology available? “It’s coming, definitely” says Fernandes “I don’t know when, but the days of lamp-based projectors are numbered.”

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