Lamp? What Lamp?

Lamp-free projection isn’t a new idea. After all, that term precisely describes cathode-ray tube (CRT) projectors, which were the only way to project electronic color images for almost two decades. (A CRT-engined light valve projector was demonstrated in England prior to World War II!)

With the advent of LCD and then DLP projectors in the early to mid-1990s, the writing was on the wall for CRTs. The microdisplay projector category grew explosively in just fifteen years from a handful of video-resolution boxes at InfoComm 1993 to total domination of the category at all resolutions and brightness levels by 2008.

Indeed; it seemed like the good times would just roll on forever. But we all know that’s not usually the case (composite video and VGA notwithstanding). And in 2011, the specter of super-sized, inexpensive LCD TVs and monitors suddenly loomed over what once was the most energetic, anarchaic, and exhilarating AV thrill ride ever.

Two years later, projector manufacturers are watching with increasing concern as the traditional “hang and bang” conference room and classroom market yields to the siren song of Big LCDs. “No need to change lamps!” they cry out. “No need to dim lights! No need for a screen! Instant on and off! Set it and forget it!” The message is seductive, and for the most part, true.

A change is coming. Some manufacturers, refusing to become paralyzed with inaction, are speeding up development of lamp-free projectors, turning to light-emitting diodes, lasers, and a combination of the two in an attempt to slow the tides of change. You’ve no doubt seen some of these projectors at earlier InfoComm, CES, and SID get-togethers. Well, you’re about to see a lot more.

At the January Integrated Systems Europe show, BenQ, Sony, Mitsubishi, NEC, and Casio all exhibited lamp-free projectors with brightness levels ranging from a few hundred lumens to 2,000 lumens. Sony’s demo attracted great interest, as it was the first 3LCD-based imaging system and uses lasers. BenQ’s offerings are also 100% laser-engined, with the rest of the crowd using various combinations of LEDs and lasers.

Going lamp-free is seen as a successful parry against Big LCDs. First off, the lamp replacement issue goes away, once and for all. Lamp-free projectors are also essentially maintenance-free, just like today’s LCD TVs: Simply turn them on and use them for 15,000 to 20,000 hours. And they also offer instant on/off operation, something that’s been a challenge for designers of conventional short-arc lamp designs.

At present, lamp-free projectors can span three levels of brightness. The 100%-LED designs are usually good for a maximum of 1100 lumens, with 500 lumens being the norm. Above 1100 lumens and up to 4,000 lumens, the laser/LED hybrids take over. A gap then follows from 4,000 to 10,000 lumens, at which point the high-power laser light engines rule the roost, soaring as high as 70,000 lumens for digital cinema and large venue projection.

Christie Digital (owners of NECSEL), Laser Light Engines, Kodak, and NEC are all active in the large venue laser space. LLE’s innovative remote laser light heads with armored fiber optic bundles may be the key to wider adoption of the technology. Christie, who recently sponsored a two-week showcase run of GI JOE:RETALIATION in Burbank CA, using their 60,000+ lumens laser DLP Cinema projector, is now pondering the technical and financial logistics of offering more laser cinema screenings to kick up interest.

Make no mistake about it; this is a crucial time for projector manufacturers, of which there are still too many in my opinion. Super-sized 4K LCD panels are coming, 2K LCD glass cuts are going to get bigger and cheaper (Sharp’s 90-inch behemoth can be purchased by dealers for nearly $2,000 below the stated SRP from InfoComm 2013), and the only realistic way for projectors to hold any ground is to drop the lamp, once and for all.

At InfoComm, we’ll see just how many manufacturers have gotten the message – and how many are still waiting to hop on the bandwagon…