Higher Illumination: Laser projection becomes a reality

Features
Technology

In early 2011–now over four years ago–technology vendors in the cinema industry were preparing for the very first demos of prototype laser-illuminated projectors, intended to be used in DCI-level cinema applications. The industry had a problem, and laser illumination could be the solution. Premium large format (PLF) exhibition, with large auditoriums and screens, was increasing in popularity with audiences (as they always have been) and the latest generation of Xenon-based projectors just didn’t generate enough light to adequately fill the big screens. Particularly with 3D, the images were often dark, leaving audiences disappointed. At that time, using lasers as a light source for cinema projectors had fairly significant scientific, regulatory and economic issues, but the idea itself made perfect sense.

Laser illumination had the potential to significantly improve on the projector’s operating characteristics. A laser-illuminated projector could go brighter, adding realism to highlights, and it could also go darker, making the blacks richer and revealing more detail in the shadows. It would also generate less heat and last considerably longer (up to 60 times), improving screen illumination, eliminating stability issues, and reducing maintenance for exhibitors. And, it could do all this while consuming about half the power of conventional Xenon-illuminated projectors.

In cinema technology, the filmmakers have to see better images or hear better sound or else it doesn’t last for very long in the marketplace. The filmmaker–or the content creator–gets the final word on presentation quality and the technology vendors respond, manage and improve on the infrastructure without upsetting the system. First, the proponents of laser illumination had to get the sign-off from filmmakers that the light was equivalent and consistent with Xenon illumination and its implementation offered creatives a path to their images looking better to more viewers.

Of the issues laser illumination had to overcome, the economic issue was perhaps the easiest to understand: Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Not only did laser illumination have to make to make the investment to develop the technology, exhibitors needed to clearly see the benefits by lowering TCO and/or otherwise improving theatre operations.

During the first demos in 2011 and 2012, it was essentially proven that laser’s images were good and it became apparent that laser illumination was viable and would meet the quality, reliability and safety requirements for commercial exhibition use. Proponents of laser illumination also correctly predicted that it would take three to four years to sort out the regulatory and production issues before we would see commercial deployments begin. By 2013, these had largely been solved and a global initiative was underway by the Laser Illuminated Projector Association (LIPA) to address the regulatory issues so that the final product would be safe and legal to operate in commercial cinemas.

CinemaCon 2014 saw the commercial rollout of the first laser-illuminated projectors from the DLP Cinema projector manufacturers. The manufacturers all came up with unique solutions, based on feedback from their customers, who expressed a range of differing needs.

RGB/BPP

Laser-illuminated projectors fall into two technology groups: the discrete Red, Blue and Green technology (RGB) and the Blue Pumped Phosphor (BPP) technology. With the RGB technology, three separate banks of Red, Green and Blue lasers are used to produce each primary color. With BPP technology, a large array of Blue lasers indirectly creates the Green and Red primaries by stimulating phosphors to glow at the correct wavelengths. The BPP category is less expensive but can’t get as bright as RGB. Not only is BPP a simpler system, the basic technology is being adopted across the commercial projector market, leading to production savings. In general, the BPP category projectors are targeting the mainstream, low- to mid-brightness auditoriums that need DCI-grade while lowering acquisition price and ongoing cost of operation, or TCO. The RGB category is targeting the premium auditoriums, large and small, with top-end features and advanced capabilities such as 4K, 6P (six primary colors) 3D capability, HDR and extended color spaces. The dual-technology approach of using both RGB and BPP lasers in their lineup gives manufacturers a way to match a projector’s capabilities to an exhibitor’s needs and the auditorium’s size.

Proprietary/Specialty PLF: IMAX

Early this year, IMAX announced the first installations of their long-awaited laser projector program targeting auditoriums that had previously used their proprietary 70mm/15-perf film systems, as well as the growing number of new IMAX installations around the globe. The new IMAX laser projection system, with laser light engines manufactured by Barco, uses two precisely aligned side-by-side 4K projectors converged to produce greater than 4K resolution at unprecedented brightness levels. The IMAX laser projection system produces a stunning high-contrast image and is a marvel in projection engineering.

Proprietary/Specialty PLF: Dolby

Dolby Labs, well known for its sound and 3D technologies, also entered the specialty PLF market with the introduction of its Dolby Cinema format in 2014. Needing a completely new design, Dolby worked with Christie to develop an RGB laser-illuminated projector that incorporates Dolby Vision, the company’s implementation of High Dynamic Range (HDR). Dolby Vision projection uses state-of-the-art optics and image processing, producing higher peak brightness when necessary for realistic highlights, while simultaneously producing deeper and richer blacks revealing details usually hidden.

Dolby demonstrated their unique projector during CinemaCon 2015 in the Colosseum Theatre, showing the cinema industry for the first time a projector that can deliver a contrast ratio in excess of 1,000,000 to one. The new projector uses two newly designed high-frame-rate (HFR)-capable 4K laser projection heads that feature a highly customized and unique light path, along with sophisticated image processing. Combined with Christie’s 6P modular laser light sources, this technology delivers high-contrast images, high-brightness and a wider color gamut.

Dolby has recently deployed its first installations with European exhibitors including JT Cinemas, UCI/Cinesa and Cineplexx. In the U.S., AMC has begun installations and has announced they intend to deploy up to 100 Dolby Cinema projectors at their AMC Prime sites by 2024.

Exhibitor-driven PLF

Last year, projector manufacturers Barco and Christie announced projectors specifically targeting exhibitor-driven PLF screens where achieving adequate 3D illumination with Xenon had been a challenge. NEC also announced projectors targeting small and mid-size screens where reducing TCO was the primary attraction. At this year’s CinemaCon, Barco, Christie and NEC also announced and demonstrated new laser-illuminated projectors, expanding their product lines and targeting a wider range of customers with projectors of various brightness levels and performance capabilities.

Barco

Barco has been a leader in cinema laser development, with their first major industry demonstration at the Moody Gardens Digital Cinema Symposium in early 2012, and followed with a number of impressive technical demonstrations of high-brightness laser-illuminated projectors with full DCI 3D in 4K at 60 fps and up to 120 fps in 2K.

In 2014, Barco introduced their first production cinema laser-illuminated projector, the DP4K-60L. At CinemaCon 2015, Barco extended the product line by offering it in 45K, 30K and 22K-lumen versions with their DP4K-45L, DP4K-30L and DP4K-22L models. This single-projector integrated RGB laser projector series offers easy setup, and size that can be used in most projection booths. Since its introduction, the DP4K-60L series has been installed in a range of PLF auditoriums, including flagship installations with exhibitors such as Cinemark, Santikos and Cinepolis in the Americas, Cinema City and Prime Cinemas in the Middle East, and the Nordic Cinema Group, Kinepolis and JT Bioscopen in Europe. Barco has installed over 30 of its laser projectors around the globe, with approximately half being in Asia.

At CinemaCon 2015, Barco also demonstrated an 18,000-lumen BPP-based laser retrofit kit mounted in their widely deployed DP2K-20C projector. They also announced the future availability of retrofit kits spanning their entire cinema projector lineup starting in early 2016, reinforcing their strategy of moving to laser illumination for every screen.

Christie

Christie also has been leading cinema laser development, with a series of impressive demonstrations beginning in 2012. Christie was the first to screen a full-length feature in 3D at 14 ft-L, and later the first to demonstrate a 72,000-lumen cinema projection system to audiences in Beijing that fall. After extensive testing in several U.S. theatres, Christie announced availability of its dual-head 4K 3D (6P) laser projector at CinemaCon 2014, with their first permanent installations at Seattle’s Cinerama Theatre and the Shanghai Film Art Center.

At this year’s CinemaCon, in addition to showing the large dual-headed RGB projector, Christie expanded the use of laser into their cinema lineup with the announcement of their Christie Freedom® laser-illumination system, specifically the Christie CP42LH. The Christie laser projection system uses a scalable laser light source with a choice of projection heads connected to an externally mounted RGB laser light source via a fiber cable. The Christie Freedom laser-illumination system’s modularity allows the light output to be scaled in 5,000-lumen increments by adding to a rack-mounted array of laser modules.

Christie has also indicated that it intends to use BPP laser technology in future projectors for mid-size and smaller screens. At BIRTV in Beijing this August, Christie held a technology preview of its upcoming BPP laser projector for cinema. Developed primarily for small to medium-size cinema screens, the projector will bring key features and advantages to the cinema market, including the ability to project to DCI-approved standards, while delivering virtually maintenance-free operation over its lifetime. Although Christie says its existing 3P and 6P high-powered Solaria laser lineup remains the top choice for PLF screens, the Christie BPP laser technology demonstrated at BIRTV will provide a cost-effective illumination solution for mid-size and smaller screens.

NEC

NEC was the first to bring BPP laser technology to the cinema market and has focused its efforts into adapting BPP lasers to cinema standards and packaging it in relatively small and cost-effective projectors. NEC introduced their first laser-illuminated projectors, the NC1100L and NC1040L, at CinemaCon 2014. The NEC NC1000L is an integrated BPP laser design with DCI-approved 2K and is 3D-capable, while the NC1040L is an RGB design that provides 4K resolution and advanced color capabilities using external laser modules. At CinemaCon 2015, NEC followed with the introduction of the entirely new NC1201L, and announced it had upgraded the NC1040L to the NC1440L, which now features up to 10K lumens of light output and can be increased significantly—up to 30K lumens—as higher-power laser modules are announced in the coming months.

All of the current NEC laser-illuminated projectors are targeted to the mid-size to smaller screens where meeting DCI quality levels while reducing TCO are the objective. The DCI-approved 2K NC1201L’s relatively small size makes it ideal for tight projection booths, post facilities, mobile applications with screens up to 12 meters (40 feet). The NC1201L’s Integrated Media Server with two TB of storage and its range of input connectors provides a complete DCI projection solution without the need for external equipment.

Retrofit Lasers: General

In view of the limited size of the global cinema market and that practically all commercial cinemas have recently been upgraded with a new digital projector, it is only natural that manufacturers would look at ways of upgrading the large base of existing Xenon-based projectors with an add-on laser solution. Barco has committed to developing retrofit solutions for their DLP Cinema Series 2 projectors, with availability sometime in the next year, and it is likely that other manufacturers will follow with retrofit solutions for their popular projectors. Although retrofitting existing Xenon projectors with third-party aftermarket laser illumination brings up a range of issues, including liability and DCI compliance, several independent companies have developed and introduced retrofit solutions.

Cinemeccanica

Cinemeccanica, the Milan, Italy-based projector company, announced the development of its Cinecloud LUX laser retrofit system in December 2013, followed by several key installations in Italy. The LUX retrofit light engine is an RGB laser design supporting 6P 3D design that is compatible with existing Series 2 DLP Cinema projectors. The LUX’s modular design further advances system reliability and device customization from 19,000 up to 57,000 lumens with a single projector and potentially up to 110,000 lumens in dual-projector configuration.

At CinemaCon 2015, Cinemeccanica and 3D provider XpanD announced their partnership to develop and market the LUX to the global cinema market. Recently, Cinemeccanica, working with XpanD, installed two of its LUX laser systems at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival that will be used for the opening ceremony in early September for the worldwide premiere of Everest in 3D.

ALPD and China Film Group

One of the more surprising announcements at CinemaCon 2015 regarding lasers came from the China Film Group (CFG), which has partnered with Shenzhen-based Appotronics Corp. Ltd., a specialist in laser illumination in other markets, to demonstrate its own laser retrofit solution for existing digital-cinema projectors. The Appotronics laser development, known as the ALPD® system, is a BPP design that is said to produce 20K lumens with DCI-level color and stability, and supports industry-standard 3D systems. The ALPD is said to have up to 30,000 hours of laser life and uses 50% of the power of conventional Xenon bulbs of equivalent brightness. Appotronics expects to have over 300 cinema projectors in China retrofitted with its laser-illumination system by the end of 2015, and expects this to reach over 3,000 in 2016.

In 2014, cinema projectors with laser illumination first appeared and were largely targeting the top-tier PLF screens that needed more light on the screen. In 2015, the use of laser illumination has expanded across the entire cinema projector market, ranging from the specialty formats—both IMAX and Dolby Cinema—to lower-cost DCI-compliant projectors intended for mid-size and smaller screens where lowering TCO is the primary attraction. Going forward, we are likely to see laser illumination eventually replace the Xenon bulb in more and more designs. It is indeed a bright future for the cinema exhibition industry.