Projectors in entertainment are your flexible friend

Projectors might face stiff competition from LED and LCD, but the technology remains a firm favourite in entertainment venues. Paul Milligan finds out why, and if this could change in time.

The projector has been the mainstay of the proAV world for half a century, but it has not enjoyed the best of times in recent years. Increased competition from LCD and LED technology has hit the projector market hard, with a double whammy of improvements in quality and steep drops in price. Outside of big markets like education and corporate there is still one sector however that relies on projectors, and that’s entertainment venues such as theme parks, museums, theatres, live shows etc.

So just what is it that integrators and consultants in these types of projects like so much about projectors, over newer technology such as LCD panels or LED tiles? “The major reason projectors are still popular is the aesthetic quality of the projected image and the lack of a suitable and affordable alternative for images above a certain size and the flexibility of the different surfaces and shapes that you can project onto,” Simon George, senior consultant, culture, entertainment and leisure from global integration group Electrosonic. Flexibility was the key it seems. “LED tiles and panels fit into the mix as image delivery surfaces in an exhibit or designed space, however they have a physical presence and form the surface, so you can’t make them disappear completely,” says Blair Parkin, executive vice president from consultancy firm Teecom.

Being able to project onto nearly any shape of surface isn’t just about using space creatively, it can save you installation headaches too says Hartmut Kulessa, marketing manager, Panasonic Europe.  “LED tiles can be put into curved environments, but what I hear from integrators is that, although there are standardised metal works, it is still quite an effort to install LED into even a flat wall, it requires a lot of installation work. In terms of saving installation costs and effort required, the advantage still sits with projection.”

Rainham Park estate Epson

The size of image is another factor says George, “If you need large images with high resolution then projection is often the only option and certainly the only cost effective option. It is also possible to produce very large images by using overlapped (soft edged or blended) projection including on circular or irregular shapes.” Another issue that favours projection in these environments over LED/LCD is speed says Chris Axford, international sales and marketing director from projector manufacturer Digital Projection.  

“For temporary events it’s all about turning your inventory as fast as possible if you are a rental house, so you can maximise your return on it. Setting up for seven days for a one day event just isn’t feasible. Likewise, if you are using a venue that is open to the public and in popular demand, like a museum, even if it’s a flat surface, getting two big 4K projected images up is one hour of rigging, but doing it any other way is massively time consuming. Public spaces rely on getting people through the door, so they don’t want to waste time on that stuff either. It’s a rapid way to achieving awe inspiring results.”

As well as offering versatility, large images and superior speed of install, does using projectors allow integrators and consultants to be more creative, because there aren’t as many restrictions placed on them, as suffered by other technologies? “It’s possible in the media production phase to produce images that are circular or indeed any other shape that the creative designer wishes to produce,” says George.  But just having that ability to use more surfaces isn’t enough warns Kevin Murphy, director of sales and marketing at Austrian integrator Kraftwerk Living Technologies.  “Projection enables us to be creative, but other technologies exist and just pointing a projector at a wall is not enough.” Parkin is in agreement, having the technology isn’t enough; “The show is only as good as the script.  Well produced projection-based experiences are a kind of theatre. They need to harness creative professionals and technical professionals working together to deliver the magic. It’s not a matter of the technology integrators getting more creative, that’s like saying the sound engineer should write the score. Composer and engineer in harmony working together is what makes hit records. An amazing show isn’t a ‘solution’, it’s a creative and technical collaboration.”

HelvRelicMuseum Kraftwerk

Pic: (c) Creative Direction  TAMSCHICK MEDIA+SPACE

Advances in projector technology can help improve an event, but it can’t be used as a ‘get out of jail’ card warns Murphy, “As projection advances with more light and variety, we are getting to the stage where the true practitioners of complex image mapping on both the hardware and media side, is being lost with any old joe and a few projectors washing kaleidoscopic images in front of us, because they can. We have to be very careful that projects and ideas are copied without an understanding that whilst the initial impression on a huge display can be ‘wow’ as soon as you have 10 minutes of meaningless image, the impact is lost.”

Has the introduction of laser light sources helped keep projectors as the ‘go to’ technology for entertainment venues? “Visitors expect more immersive content, more visual content, because the younger generation has been brought up surrounded by video content. Installing projectors has always been difficult because of the maintenance costs, lamp changes, brightness loss etc,” says Kulessa. “All this has been massively improved with laser light tools. This is why we are now seeing increasing demand for long term up to fixed installs for projection mapping. We are seeing this in museums and theme parks, who have installed them because it is now affordable, they are not chewing up lamps anymore.”

Laser isn’t a perfect fit for all jobs however adds Murphy; “For the work that we do in larger venues with larger light sources, we really only ever use Xenon lamp-based technologies. There are smaller and medium-sized projects where we have to look at laser phosphor, particularly in exhibitions or smaller scale mapping projects.” Murphy believes we are still in transition phase between lamps and laser light sources, and this shift comes with a warning from Murphy, aimed at both integrators and manufacturers alike; “With so many laser phosphor models we almost face a ‘disposable’ market with high cost technology being removed after only a few years where they are being used 15 to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

When we think of projection in entertainment it conjures up an image of multiple 20k+ black box projectors, that take several people to lift in place. But can smaller projectors save the day in entertainment venues, especially in areas where space in at a premium? “Projectors of all shapes and sizes are being leveraged into different kinds of projection-based experiences,” says Parkin. “Even low cost consumer projectors are appearing in museums for small exhibits. Though this presents the operator dangers in terms of reliability and longevity, some of the technology is very compelling and cost effective.”

panasonic project mapping

More powerful and longer lasting projectors are making the technology available to more people as the technology progresses says Kulessa. “Projector lamp technology is very mature, we are not taking big steps in engineering anymore.  With laser technology, it’s still very dynamic, every 6-12 months there is new generation of laser diodes coming out, and prices are improving, which allows us to build double the brightness of projector in the same form factor.  With the RZ12 platform, we launched a 12k projector, three years later we had 20k projector in the same form factor and weight.  We will see more compact 30K laser projectors soon, and the form factors will be manageable, which allows designers to work in situations where space if difficult, so they can put small projectors and still creative a great result.” 

Has the increased quality, consistency and brightness made projection mapping a possibility for projectors that aren’t 20k+? Is it possible to do it on a budget? It is undoubtedly possible, but probably unlikely due to other factors says Kulessa. “The problem with doing projection mapping on a budget is content creation, and managing the installation,” he says. His team was recently involved on a project to install a small projection mapping system in hundreds of retail outlets but the project fell through because the company didn’t have local people on site to manage it (i.e. if someone touches it or moves it out of position).

The installation of a dome is again something we always associate with multiple large-scale projectors, but can it be done using other display technology? And have advancements in blending technology taken the installation of a dome out of the hands of only very specialist integrators for the first time? “Projection is still the only practical way of creating images in a dome,” says George. “Depending on the size of dome this is no longer solely the realm of specialist contractors, although there are still quite a few unique factors to take into consideration. What is required is a media producer with experience of this type of installation.”

While acknowledging the advancements in blending software (Vioso was mentioned again and again) and the introduction of fish eye lenses, in making a dome easier to put together, some were wary to see this type of project undertaken by just anyone. “Projecting well in a dome remains a specialist endeavour, wherever we work with integrators who have not done it before we run into troubles,” says Parkin.  Yes blending, auto-alignment and projection layout design tools have all improved immeasurably but it’s still the preserve of the specialist.” Some, like Murphy feel new technologies on the horizon could change how we design and install domes; “There will be new technologies making an impact on the dome, with some specialist LED displays to be seen soon, but the technology will lose some of the flexibility and will be at a higher budget, but in five years I can see LED and projection being evaluated and used in some dome applications, definitely”.

Panasonic mapping

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