Future Visions: Sony’s Crystal LED direct-view technology paves way for a cinema without projectors


A cinema with no projectors might seem like a contradiction in terms. But it could be a reality for tomorrow’s movie audiences.

Projection technology has done a remarkable job since its introduction by the Lumière brothers in the 1890s. And notwithstanding the relatively recent industry shift from celluloid to digital, the essentials have remained effectively unchanged for over a century. By definition, projection depends on viewers seeing light from a distant source reflected from a screen. Today’s state-of-the-art 4K projectors exploit this basic principle to quite remarkable effect, with a wide range of solutions to suit every cinema owner, from small boutique screens to major multiplexes.

However, for the biggest screens—and the most ambitious PLF exhibitors—there’s the intriguing scenario of a quite different approach to delivering immersive entertainment experiences on a spectacular scale.

Taking a direct view

As consumers, we’re all familiar with “direct view” technology where light emitted by a TV set, laptop or smartphone screen travels directly to our eyes. Direct-view displays have been a living room fixture for decades, but they’ve never been an option in cinemas. And while sports fans and concert goers have long been familiar with super-size video walls, their resolution, color and contrast fall short of cinematic requirements—as do the all-too-visible gaps between individual modules.

Shown at CineEurope in Barcelona this year, Sony’s remarkable Crystal LED Display technology hints at a complementary solution to projection for big-screen cinema presentation in the future. Crucially, Crystal LED employs multiple display modules that can be tiled seamlessly with no visible gaps or borders. This allows creation of a totally flat screen with virtually unlimited dimensions and aspect ratio to suit any size of auditorium.

Separate red, green and blue Ultrafine LEDs allow a huge 99% of the display’s surface area to be completely black. Exceeding the limits of conventional LED panel technology, the technology delivers impressive brightness in excess of 1,000 nits and a huge color range. It also enables an extraordinary contrast ratio of over a million to one—far in excess of today’s best projectors and ample for presenting HDR content. With conventional projection, image brightness rolls off rapidly for viewers sitting further off-axis. In contrast, Crystal LED lets every audience member enjoy a clear, bright picture without color shift over a virtually 180-degree viewing angle.

While we’re actively developing Crystal LED for other applications, a commercialized direct-view product for cinemas from Sony still lies some way in the future. When it does happen, however, Crystal LED will offer an exciting addition to the range of technology choices for tomorrow’s cinema operators.

Ideal for smaller screens, the new generation of high-contrast laser phosphor projectors—spearheaded by our SRX-R800 Series – offers true 4K picture quality, plus welcome freedom from the chore and recurring costs of frequent lamp changes.

For larger theatres, RGB laser will go beyond today’s DCI quality standards, offering significantly higher brightness plus a wider color gamut—great for High Dynamic Range—and improved 3D.

Complementing laser for the biggest screen owners, direct view will deliver an entirely different experience. It will enable HDR presentation at brightness levels that even today’s top-end proprietary projection systems just can’t match. What’s more, it will do away with the inherent limitations imposed on any projector by individual installation conditions, including optical distortion and losses due to lenses, projection windows, screens, keystone errors and more.

Equally, removing the projector eliminates the need for a projection booth. Freeing up more room for audience seating, it makes screens viable in smaller spaces that don’t suit installing a projector. Compared with Xenon lamps that need regular replacement, those tiny LEDs last a very long time indeed, with little to no reduction in brightness. And with no alignment or day-to-day maintenance needed, it’s very good news in terms of operating overheads.

Seeing ahead

Crystal LED isn’t an R&D pipe dream—it’s very much a real technology. Sony already offers a modular display solution for visual simulation and entertainment applications, ranging from theme parks to car showrooms and luxury stores.

Screen owners don’t need to rush out and put their projectors up for sale on eBay anytime soon. While Crystal LED will undoubtedly appeal to the biggest exhibitors, it’s going to be a while until it becomes a commercially viable alternative to today’s best projectors such as Sony’s own lamp- and laser-based 4K solutions.

But it’s intriguing to think that audiences in tomorrow’s high-tier PLF screens may be seeing things very differently indeed.