Seeing the light

Short-throw projectors turn an age old problem into a big opportunity. Tim Kridel reports.

What’s old is new again: Projectors have been AV mainstays for decades, while plasma and LCD displays are relative newcomers. But plasma’s and LCD’s rapid adoption is prompting some integrators and clients to take a fresh look at projectors as a way to stand out from technologies that everyone else seems to be using.

Short-throw projectors are one option. They’re attractive partly because some models can create images as big 100 inches across, a size that only recently became available in LCD and plasma – and then only with a hefty price tag. Short-throw projectors also are literally a good fit for rooms that are unusually small or oddly shaped to the point that locating a conventional projector far from the screen isn’t an option.

But are short-throw projectors a flash in the pan? Some vendors believe that although there will always be a niche market for them, monitors will become even more common because they’ll continue to get larger, lighter and less expensive.

“While we expect to continue to offer and even expand this option in our projector line, where space is at an absolute premium, more and more integrators are incorporating flat screen large-format LCD monitors into their designs – in place of front or rear projection,” says Bruce Pollack, associate director of marketing for the Professional Display Division at Sharp Information and Imaging Company of America. “A 108-inch commercial [LCD] display is now under development, with anticipated availability within a year. We expect integrators will be utilizing flat-screen LCDs more and more in place of projection for short-throw applications.”

One big exception is the education market, where growing concerns about eye damage among teachers and students staring into the beams of conventional projectors is driving adoption of short-throw projectors. That’s one of the reasons why Decision Tree Consulting, an independent analyst firm, expects 11% of new whiteboard installations to include a short-throw projector, growing to 48% by 2011.

How short is short?

There’s no exact industry definition for “short-throw,” a term that’s something of a vague catch-all. Some vendors don’t even use the term. For example, 3M markets its projectors as “super close.” The screen-projector distance even varies somewhat based on application, market and country.

“Within the U.K. education sector, the accepted definition that we perceive seems to be those that project from about 1 meter or less,” says Paul Schofield, group head of hardware product management at Promethean.

Others take a slightly longer view. For example, Sharp offers short-throw lens options for several projectors that produce a 100-inch image from as close as 1.6 meters. Regardless of the yardstick they use, vendors agree that short-throw projectors address a variety of real-world needs.

“Short-throw projection will overcome major disadvantages of conventional projection,” says Axel Kutschke, senior manager for presentation products at Hitachi Digital Media Group, whose CP-A100/ED-A110 projector produces a 60-inch image from as close as 42 cm.

One example is the age-old problem of a presenter standing between the screen and the light source. Short-throw projectors overcome that disadvantage in a couple of ways. First, the short distance makes it difficult or unlikely that the presenter can squeeze between the screen and the projector. Second, many short-throw projectors are designed to be mounted on the ceiling, where they’re angled down in a way that only a professional basketball player would be tall enough to create a shadow.

Educating the market

Vendors say that museums are one of the biggest current markets for short-throw projectors. For example, the ability to hide the projector against the ceiling or in a ceiling recess enables applications such as a corridor of images that seem to come from nowhere. Tucking the projector up against or into the ceiling also is a plus because it reduces the impact on the museum’s aesthetics.

But perhaps the biggest market is education.

“We’ve had significant success in the education market, where the projector has been bundled with interactive white board solutions,” says Simeon Joseph, product marketing manager for NEC’s display solutions division.

Other vendors agree, adding that a school’s installed base of interactive whiteboards can create an opportunity for a sale of short-throw projectors. The reason goes back to one of the advantages of short-throw projectors: The design frees the teacher from having to stare into the lens.

“[U.K. schools] rapidly realized that the biggest problem with interactive whiteboards is the projector in the ceiling,” says Peter Barker, European market development manager for digital products at 3M Visual Systems. “So there’s a big opportunity in the U.K. for retrofitting.”

Making the sale sometimes requires a side-by-side, seeing-is-believing demo of short-throw and conventional projectors.

“You put this in front of teachers, and they instantly get the benefits,” Barker says. “What they’re really fed up with is turning around and getting blinded by the lens. With this system, the teacher never gets blinded by the light. That’s the real beauty.”

Seeing opportunity

That beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, makers of short-throw projectors are turning a problem into an opportunity: There’s growing concern, particularly in the U.K. market, about eye damage to teachers from conventional projectors. In June 2007, the BBC obtained a Health and Safety Executive report recommending that users "make sure that direct beam viewing of the optical output from this equipment is both controlled and restricted to no more than a few tens of seconds at a time.”

Teachers groups and others advocate warning stickers on whiteboards to warn teachers about the dangers, which include peripheral retina damage even when the user isn’t staring directly into the beam. Another concern is about damage among children who use whiteboards with projectors.

Those concerns have reached the point that some vendors and integrators have begun playing up the safety angle in their marketing messages. One example is a August 2007 press release from Steljes, a U.K. integrator, that notes: “Although there is still no conclusive research, safety fears are growing around the impact of projector glare in students and teachers eyes when using interactive whiteboards. Extreme short throw technology is designed to be sited very close to the whiteboard and angled, dramatically reducing both glare and shadow effects.”

It wasn’t hard to see this problem coming, some vendors say.

“[At one InfoComm show several years ago,] a famous U.S. projector display maker gave free sunglasses to customers, unwillingly predicting coming problems with increasing brightness ranges,” says Hitachi’s Kutschke.

So how big is the potential market for short-throw projectors? Decision Tree Consulting estimates that more than 100,000 projectors paired with interactive whiteboards will be replaced this year. That’s a lot of opportunities to sell educators and others on short-throw models.

And although teachers aren’t the only professionals who spend part of their day staring into projector beams, they’re currently the most high-profile group raising concerns about the problem. That creates another opportunity: When selling into the retail and enterprise markets, vendors and integrators can leverage the growing public awareness about educator concerns to convince clients that short-throw projectors are away to avoid those problems with their employees and patrons.

Ceiling or wall?

3M is among the vendors advocating a different approach for applications such as education: wall mounts rather than ceiling mounts. The company says that a wall-based design has a variety of installation advantages, such as avoiding asbestos insulation that may be on pipes above a drop ceiling, and no design hassles from unusually high ceilings.

“You have no need for worrying about going into ceiling and all of the issues of ceiling mounts,” Barker says. “If you’re installing a projector in the ceiling, you’ve got to get power in there, by law. You can’t just run an extension cable up to the projector.”

Some integrators get around that requirement by making the school responsible for the additional wiring. “So the school has additional cost that’s given to them when they purchase these systems,” Barker says.

Evolving technology and markets

Some vendors have been in the short-throw market for several years and now are on their second- or third-generation products. One example is NEC, whose latest product – the WT610 – eliminates the lens in favor of a system of mirrors that presents the image to screen or other surfaces.

That design is a plus for two reasons: fewer components and less distortion.

“You can reduce the optical part [count necessary] for a short-throw projection system,” Joseph says. “Typically [in DLP or LCD designs], you have an optical path, where you have to use an array of prisms and dichroic mirrors and lenses. When you use lenses, one of the trick parts is that you have to fight against optical distortion.”

Besides vertical and horizontal keystone correction, the WT610 also has a feature called 3D Reform, which controls the projected image’s geometry. “It allows you to control the corner elements of the picture, the side elements, and you’re able to compensate for things such as pincushion distortion,” Joseph says.

Another company that’s been in the short-throw market for years is 3M. In 2006, it increased the image sizes that its projectors can produce, based on requests from schools.

“They said: ‘60 inches for a classroom is kind of small. Can we get up to 78 inches or something like that?’” Barker says.

Flexibility also is increasingly key. For example, some schools like their existing interactive whiteboards and can’t justify buying new ones. To make sales in those situations, 3M developed the DMF800, which includes a telescopic, wall-mounted arm and works with existing whiteboards.

NEC also is bundling wall boom mounts with short-throw projectors, partly because of the size of some classrooms.

“A lot of U.K. school rooms are very high, so you may have a lot of space to mount the projector on the wall with the wall boom from the top,” Joseph says.

But other applications have different needs. For example, in retail, a ceiling- or wall-mounted projector might not be an option for reasons such as aesthetics.

“You may have to put it at the bottom of the screen,” Joseph says. “It can be partially covered because all you need to do is allow an aperture for the light path to pass.”

Regardless of how they’re mounted, integrators and clients increasingly are seeing the light when it comes to short-throw projectors.

By Tim Kridel

Tim Kridel is a freelance writer and analyst, who covers technology and telecommunications. He’s based in Kansas City in the United States and can be reached at

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