Projectors have become sexy.
That may come as a surprise if you associate them with AV classes in high school and dull presentations at trade shows. So how were they able to change their nerdy image? As usual, the credit goes to advances in technology. Portable projectors have become so lightweight and small that you can easily place a projector and a laptop in a compact carry-on bag. At the same time, the high-end models designed for fixed installations have become extremely powerful.
Although the growth in the projector category isn't as dramatic as that in laptops and digital cameras, the advances are driving a steady increase in sales. In its "Projection Displays 1998" report, the research company Stanford Resources of San Jose, California, estimates that the total market value for the category will grow from $7.2 billion in 1998 to $11.7 billion in 2004, with the average selling price of a projector falling 5 percent per year when compounded annually.
Light and Lively
The projector market currently breaks down into two segments: consumer and business. The consumer models are mostly rear-projected and CRT-based. As plasma-based monitors come down in price, they are likely to take a significant share of the consumer projector market. Most of the business market for projectors is associated with the use of computer-driven presentation software.
According to the Stanford Resources study, the business market has shifted in the past few years from "bulky front CRT projectors to portable polysilicon LCD projectors."
Ultra-portables-that is, front-projection LCD and DLP projectors weighing less than 10 pounds- make up the fastest-growing segment of the business projector market. Stanford Resources expects this portion of the market to surge from 110,000 units sold in 1998 to 1.4 million units in 2004. As the projectors become lighter, people are more willing to take along their own projector and laptop computer, instead of relying on whatever is available at the presentation site.
Sweta Dash, a senior market analyst with Stanford Resources, predicts that the market for ultra-portables will really take off when the price of the projectors falls below $2,000. "A company may now have only one or two projectors because of the cost," Dash says, "but as the price becomes more affordable, the company could almost have one projector per salesperson."
Ultra-portable projectors start at five pounds and have an entry price of $3,000. Keep in mind that it was less than three years ago that projectors broke the 10-pound barrier. The five-pounders are basic projectors with feature sets that are adequate for many situations. In other words, although they're wonders of miniaturization, they aren't made for the most demanding locations. As with lightweight laptops, you will have to give up some functionality to get the lowest possible weight. Unfortunately, lightweight projectors can't offer all the features you may be accustomed to in a 15-pound portable or a 50-pound fixed-installation projector.
The two five-pound ultra-portables that are now available-Proxima's UltraLight SP1 ($2,999) and Lightware's Scout ($3,000)-are similarly equipped. They feature a brightness level of 500 ANSI lumens; native S-VGA (800 x 600) resolution; PC, video, S-video, and audio inputs; support for the NTSC, PAL and SECAM video standards; stereo two-watt speakers; a remote control; and a 200-watt metal-halide lamp that is rated for 1,000 hours.
The lightweight projectors are designed for easy transportation and setup. Both the UltraLight SP1 and Scout have fixed lenses; are taller and stockier than typical laptop computers; and take up about the same amount of space overall as a laptop. Proxima includes a soft-sided case that lets users pack both the projector and a laptop in the same carry-on bundle.
As you move up the weight and price scale, you can find projectors with many of the features that professionals have come to expect-as well as some new ones.
Sony's VPL-SC50U ($5,990) weighs in at 8.2 pounds, but it adds a zoom lens (not a fixed lens like the smaller and lower-priced Proxima and Lightware projectors), a magnesium body (as opposed to plastic) and dual-activated switches embedded in each pixel (if one switch fails, the second can continue-lessening the chance of faulty pixels). When the VPL-SC50U is connected to your computer's mouse port, its remote control can function as a computer mouse for integrated presentations. The VPL-SC50U has a native S-VGA resolution and is rated at 500 ANSI lumens.
Inching up in brightness, weight and price is Sanyo's PLC-SU10N Mobilite Pro ($6,995). Weighing 8.6 pounds and boasting a brightness rating of 600 ANSI lumens, it measures a minuscule 8.5 inches by 4.3 inches by 12.4 inches. The Mobilite Pro has a built-in PC card slot that lets users display JPEG, BMP and PowerPoint files without a computer; it also lets users display digital photos stored on a SmartMedia card. Look for the PC card trend to continue, giving presenters who don't normally travel with a laptop the option to leave the PC behind.
As ultra-portable projectors approach a weight of 10 pounds and a price of $10,000, the specifications become increasingly sophisticated. The LP750 from InFocus Systems weighs 9.7 pounds and costs $9,999. The company claims that the LP750 is the quietist projector in the industry at 32 decibels-half the noise of some projectors and quieter than many laptop computers. Other features include a brightness rating of 800 ANSI lumens; a 1.3:1 zoom lens; native XGA (1,024 x 768) resolution; a single cable for a consolidated audio, video and mouse connection to the computer; a contrast ratio of 300:1; and a second data input to provide quick access to additional information, as well as to shorten the transition time between speakers.
Plus Corporation of America's UP1100 ($9,995) is slightly heavier, at 10.5 pounds, but boasts a bright 1,000 ANSI lumens rating and a 500:1 contrast ratio (measured full on/off). This DLP-based projector has a native XGA resolution and a color palette of 16.7 million colors. It can handle component video as well as RGB and standard video, making it an excellent choice for use with high-end DVD players. The built-in 1:1.3 manual and 1:4 digital zoom lens can produce images that vary from 19.2 inches wide to 242.4 inches wide. Optional accessories include a hard-surface rolling case and ceiling-mount kit.
If you need even more brightness, you can still go with a relatively lightweight projector. The PT-L557U ($7,995) from Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems (PBTSC) features an impressive brightness rating of 1,500 ANSI lumens and a contrast ratio of 250:1, yet it weighs a quite reasonable 13.6 pounds. Other features include native S-VGA resolution, a PC card slot (slide-management software is included to help you create self-running continuous-play presentations), a zoom lens (allowing use with screens ranging in size from 20 inches to 300 feet), and an integrated remote control that doubles as a mouse and laser pointer.
Or you can purchase a projector bundle that includes a portable screen.
Hitachi's Mobile Presentation Solution ($6,345) combines the company's 11-pound CP-S830W, a 40-inch Izumi portable screen and a customized Targus carrying case.
The CP-S830W features native S-VGA resolution, a 1.3X zoom lens, a brightness rating of 500 ANSI lumens and a remote control with mouse functions. The built-in video connectors include two RGB inputs, two RCA video inputs, two S-video inputs and an RGB output.
Clash of the Titans
Although the major trends are in the brightness, lightness, price and resolution of projectors, there are also developments in the technology used to project images. One of the most dramatic shifts in the past three years has been the implementation of Texas Instruments' Digital Light Processing (DLP) at both the high and low ends of the business-projector market.
Liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology is built partly on an analog architecture. In projectors based on that technique, the LCD acts as a shutter that controls the amount of polarized light that is transmitted through the panel. An electrical signal is sent through the transistor of each pixel in order to vary the pixel's polarization. DLP is purer digital technology. It uses a Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) to control thousands of tiny mirrors, which function as light switches for the pixels. Similar to other digital devices, DLP projectors include memory and a signal processor.
In theory, the digital purity of DLP projectors provides a more noise-free and precise image, as well as a more accurate reproduction of color and gray-scale levels. As is true with digital audio, fewer conversions between the digital and analog domains translates into a higher-quality image. Because DLP technology is reflective-as opposed the transmissive technology used in LCD systems-it is also more efficient. DLP systems typically pass more than 60 percent of the light through the mechanism, compared with 50 percent for LCD projectors.
Although the advantages of DLP would appear to be significant, the manufacturers of LCD projectors have worked hard to close the technological gap. Using micro lenses, they have been able to move three-panel LCD (also known as polycrystalline silicon LCD or polysilicon LCD) projectors from S-VGA to XGA resolution without losing brightness. They have also been able to move from single-panel LCDs to three-panel LCDs without adding significant weight to the projectors.
A good example of the new low-price DLP projectors is InFocus's LP400 ($3,000).
Weighing 6.8 pounds, it features a brightness rating of 700 ANSI lumens and native S-VGA resolution. The DLP technology provides an impressive 400:1 contrast ratio.
Some companies, such as NEC Technologies, are hedging their bets by offering both DLP and LCD projectors. At 10.8 pounds, NEC's DLP-based MultiSync LT100 ($8,995) offers native XGA resolution, a brightness level of 1,000 ANSI lumens, a digital comb filter for improved video quality and and optional PC card adapter to create a self-contained presentation system. NEC's LCD-based MultiSync MT1030 ($9,495) weighs 16 pounds, features native XGA resolution and is rated at 900 ANSI lumens. In the case of NEC, the DLP and LCD projectors are similarly priced when comparing features.
Epson has played a leading role in moving the market from single-panel LCDs to three-panel LCDs. The company's PowerLite 7500C ($9,999) is the first sub-10-pound XGA projector to use micro lenses. The 7500C uses three 0.9-inch Ultra High Aperture (UHA) LCD panels to achieve the higher resolution. The UHA panels depend on two types of technology: Micro Lens Array (MLA) and metal sandwich. The MLA technology places a microscopic lens in front of each pixel to increase the overall light level. That's nearly 2.4 million microscopic lenses in each 7500C. The meta-sandwich technology places minute strips of metal between the pixels in order to reduce light leakage. Because there is less crosstalk between the pixels, the result should be a clearer image. The PowerLite 7500C features an 800-ANSI-lumen rating, a 95 percent illumination ratio and a 300:1 contrast ratio.
Larger Than Life
DLP is also beginning to grab its share of the large-scale fixed-installation market, which, until recently, was dominated by CRT and LCD systems. Digital Projection, for instance, now manufactures seven different projection systems, all of them based on DLP.
A large-scale DLP-based installation was constructed at Expo '98 in Lisbon, Portugal, that used nine SDV 1300 projectors from SIM2 Multimedia. The projectors were configured to create a 360-degree projection screen that appeared to float over the heads of viewers. A massive 156 feet in circumference and 13 feet high, the projection system was used by Croatia to showcase its Mediterranean landscapes and Adriatic shores for potential visitors.
Just as portable projectors are getting smaller and lighter, so are large-venue projectors. Electrohome's VistaGRAPHX 4000 ($74,995) is the smallest projector in its class. That translates into a not-so-portable 100 pounds, but this DLP-based projection system features a brightness rating of 4,000 ANSI lumens, a brightness uniformity that is higher than 90 percent, native XGA resolution, 10-bit digital gray-scale accuracy and a choice of interchangeable lenses.
Electrohome claims that the VistaGRAPHX 4000 can be set up in just 15 minutes.
Toronto's CFTO-TV is currently using the VistaGRAPHX 4000 for newscasts and weather maps.
DLP projectors are coming on strong in the large-venue projection market, but LCD and CRT projectors are fighting back. Barco's BARCOGraphics 9300 DLC ($79,995 without lens) uses three 5.8-inch active-matrix LCD panels and a proprietary ultra-bright 1,800-watt metal-halide lamp to provide 7,000 ANSI lumens of brightness. The projector can properly illuminate screens that are up to 50 feet wide.
Barco's BARCOReality 812 ($104,995) uses three liquid-cooled 12-inch CRT tubes-rather than traditional seven- or nine-inch CRT tubes-to provide more than twice the output and nearly twice the resolution of conventional CRT projectors.
The projector is rated at 410 ANSI lumens in its normal mode and 500 ANSI lumens in its boost mode. It can handle screens ranging in size from 7.9 by 5.9 feet to 23 by 17.3 feet.
Sandwiched between the portable projectors and the large-venue models are conference-room projectors that never move or are rarely moved. Stanford Resources' Sweta Dash notes that DLP projectors have not yet made inroads into this area, though LCD projectors are continuing to push out the CRT projectors.
"The three-panel polysilicon projectors are going above 1,000 lumens, and they're getting so bright they're taking market share away from everyone else in conference rooms," she says.
In the conference-room category, Toshiba's 19-pound, three-panel, LCD-based TLP-711 ($10,995) is rated at 1,400 ANSI lumens and includes a built-in document camera. It also features native XGA resolution, digital zoom and a 360-degree swivel capability that allows the document camera to double as a videoconferencing camera.
For those on a tighter budget, ViewSonic's 21-pound, three-panel LCD PJ820 ($4,645) is rated at 750 ANSI lumens. It features native S-VGA resolution, and RGB-out and audio-out loop-throughs that let users connect auxiliary devices such as VCRs, computers and audio systems.
The LCD-based conference-room projectors tend to be less expensive and heavy than many competing CRT projectors. "Nowadays, people don't feel that they have to have fixed installations all the time," says Dash. "They may want to take the projector to another room or even travel with it." Another advantage that LCD projectors offer is they don't have to be maintained and serviced as regularly as CRT projectors. "CRT projectors often need to be fixed by a trained technician," she notes.
As it becomes less expensive and more efficient, much of the technology developed for large-venue projectors does filter into the conference-room models. JVC Professional Products Company's DLA-G10 ($17,500) , for instance, uses Direct-Drive Image Light Amplifier (D-ILA) technology, an extension of the Image Light Amplifier (ILA) technology that Hughes-JVC developed for large-screen theatrical projectors. The DLA-G10 uses a C-MOS-based reflective liquid crystal to produce images with excellent color, contrast, brightness and resolution. The projector's 1,365 x 1,064 resolution allows full coverage of S-XGA (1,280 x 1,024) images; the DLA-G10 also provides a video resolution of 1,000 lines and a contrast ratio of 250:1. Other features include a xenon arc lamp rated at 1,000 ANSI lumens, single-lens construction with power zoom and power focus, a full remote control and a weight of 28 pounds.
The Future Is Digital
What's the next technology trend in projectors? "The biggest shift that we're going to see in the next year or two," says Martin Reynolds, a vice president at the research firm Dataquest of San Jose, "is the move to a digital interface."
The electronic circuits that convert analog signals into digital signals add substantially to the price of projectors. The A/D and D/A conversion processes-which take place at the projector and the computer, respectively-can also create the flickering and shimmering that one often sees in projected images.
The move to eliminate D/A conversion at the computer is being driven by two other trends: the drop in the price of LCD monitors and the adoption of the Digital Visual Interface (DVI) specification. Lower-price LCD monitors have created a large enough market for manufacturers to experiment with digital connectors, and DVI has provided a standard the computer industry can use to connect computer-graphics adapters and LCD monitors. Reynolds expects projectors to follow the lead of the LCD monitors and start incorporating a standard digital interface in the near future.
David English is a freelance writer in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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Digital Projection 164
InFocus Systems 168
JVC Professional Products 169
NEC Technologies 171
Panasonic Broadcast & Television
Plus Corporation of America 173
SIM2 Multimedia 176
Texas Instruments 179
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