Laser Focus: Projecting into the future of cinema presentation
Film Journal International recently spoke with senior executives from leading companies at the forefront of helping drive worldwide adoption of laser projection and further enhancing the quality of images we are (and will be) seeing on the big screen today…and no doubt for years to come.
Three key industry trends are increasing laser projection system deployments, according to Bill Beck, a leading industry proponent and Barco’s self-described laser “zealot” since 2003. Exhibitor adoption and global installs of PLF (Premium Large Format) screens are at the top of his list as motivation for a noteworthy recent rise in top-of-the-line laser system adoption.
More reasonably priced laser phosphor deployments are helping theatre owners simplify their operations and “dramatically reduce costs,” notes Beck. The third trend he sees is that movie multiplex operators are beginning to combine higher-end premium RGB laser systems with more affordable phosphor projectors for “an optimum mix across their circuits.”
“Barco’s three-tier, 15-model portfolio demonstrates our strategic commitment to an all-laser future,” states Beck. At a ratio of 6000:1, exhibitors can showcase standard DCI content at substantially higher contrast, with no revenue sharing required. Barco’s laser lineup is now complete with six Flagship RGB models and nine SmartLaser. According to Barco, their worldwide SmartLaser footprint is currently north of 1,750 units.
The SmartLaser system emphasizes reduced TCO (total cost of ownership) for cinema operators. All offer lamp-less operation, reduced power consumption, highest wall plug efficiency and an up to 10-year light-source lifetime—when exhibitors opt for a recently launched SmartCare option.
Barco’s laser product portfolio covers a wide range from 7,000 to 60,000 lumens. To date, the company has converted 75 complexes around the globe to its 6P RGB Flagship Laser premium systems, with a base of more than 225 installations across 50 different exhibitor PLF brands. The company also has laser field-upgrade retrofit kits available for full lumen range that can convert an installed base of more than 50,000 series 2 xenon projectors to laser projectors.
“With advancements in home-viewing technology and streaming services, the theatrical community must continue to innovate to get audiences off their couches,” says Imax Corp. chief technology officer Brian Bonnick. “When you combine laser with an immersive theatre environment, large screen and visceral sound, the resulting experience is something that can’t be achieved in your living room.”
Bonnick believes that while laser technology is still relatively new, several factors will eventually lead to greater adoption, including increased demand for premium cinema, costs of lasers becoming more affordable, and filmmakers taking advantage of the format to push the moviegoing experience even further.
New laser systems will include next-gen IMAX sound technology, delivering even greater power and precision with an upgrade to 12 discrete channels plus sub-bass, including additional side and new overhead channels that will improve the system’s ability to position sounds at any point in the auditorium—even where there may not be a loudspeaker.
According to Bonnick, “Combining the patents we acquired from Kodak and our own intellectual property, we got rid of the traditional prism found in projection systems, including competing laser systems, and replaced it with a new ‘open-frame technology’ made of invar, one of the most thermally stable materials on the planet, which not only helps eliminate stray light, but allows for better cooling of the chips for dramatically increased sharpness, brightness and contrast.”
Imax works directly with many leading filmmakers throughout the creative process, whether shooting with their cameras or via post-production proprietary digital remastering, and seeks to enhance and optimize the content specifically for its laser system. With an installed base of 41 laser theatres and another 27 in backlog, the company is also currently developing a commercial laser system.
Similar to Barco’s Bill Beck, Brian Claypool, Christie’s VP, product management for global cinema, also sees a trio of major trends driving laser projection adoption. But he differs a bit on what those trends are. The common perception among manufacturers and exhibitors is that certain laser technologies offer a better TCO.
According to Claypool, “Christie believes this remains a possibility, but with important reservations. Lamp-based technology still has over 99 percent market share and provides great value in terms of TCO and reliability. More than 100,000 digital cinemas worldwide don’t have to convert from lamps to laser phosphor to maintain an attractive TCO,” he points out.
A second perception is that lasers provide better overall image quality, including higher-brightness 3D with considerably more lumens, in a smaller package. “That is also Christie’s view,” notes Claypool, “but only when solutions use RGB pure laser technology rather than laser phosphor.”
“RGB laser projection improves overall movie-viewing experience for sharper contrast, color uniformity and increased color gamut through direct-coupled, pure RGB laser projection systems we are developing,” says Claypool. “And let’s admit it…lasers are cool! And this plays to the desires of some exhibitors to distinguish their offerings as the most advanced technologies in their cinemas.
“Manufacturers including Christie have put that message out there…but there is also audience recognition that laser projection is impressive; the picture is better. Even the word ‘laser’ itself is universally recognized. It’s pronounced nearly the same in every language, from Europe to China,” Claypool adds.
With laser phosphor solutions, ease-of-serviceability—particularly in remote-access locales—facilitates simpler maintenance and operation. Christie doesn’t view laser phosphor as being a significant value over traditional lamps when analyzing TCO. As a result, it recommends this line solely for smaller screens, which are difficult to service and where light sources that only operate at comparatively low levels for a long period of time are required.
Of note, Christie has supplied RGB laser projectors for 100 Dolby Cinema installations. The Dolby Vision HDR system was co-developed with Christie, which also supplied, installed and is servicing these Dolby Vision RGB projectors post-sale. Dolby projects a further 225 Dolby Cinema installations over the next few years.
It’s no secret that Chinese cinema has been booming. Screen count has already surpassed the U.S., and the country’s annual box-office receipts will likely be number one soon as well.
Jessica Li, a corporate marketing executive, characterized a recent increasing emphasis on laser projection across China as being attributable to the low projection quality of 3D movies, prompting the State General Administration of Press and Publication, Radio and Television to introduce policies to improve overall projection quality.
According to Li, “With the fierce competition among cinemas, more and more will use laser technology to enhance their competitiveness. This also promotes the installation of laser in other cinemas, with Chinese moviegoers also demanding better projection quality,” she says.
China’s CineAppo has a unique business model—allowing cinema owners to rent their equipment by the hour, promoting laser phosphor with lower initial investment. Its ALPD® light source helps reduce operating and maintenance costs at a lower power level—consuming half the electricity of a typical xenon bulb, but with a similar brightness output level—resulting in a reduced TCO.
Pier Carlo Ottoni, Cinemeccanica’s sales and marketing director, says, “After the introduction of different 3D audio systems to create new immersive screens, now they [exhibitors] are asking for new spectacular projections in 2D and 3D, and only laser illumination is able to guarantee a superior quality level.”
In Ottoni’s view, “More important than quality perceived must be the savings that cinemas can reach introducing a laser illumination system.” Cinemeccanica stresses that purchasing new laser projectors is not the only path to technical superiority in theatres, in particular if the exhibitors have recently purchased a xenon projector.
Cinemeccanica operates as both a cinema equipment manufacturer and advisor to cinemas. They currently recommend theatres consider investing in an innovative RGB laser source that can be applied to a DLP cinema projector. LUX is their laser retrofit kit for new or existing projectors. It’s available in 13 different models for screens with light output between 5,000 and 60,000 lumens in a single projector configuration, or 120,000 lumens for a dual system.
The system works with Barco, Christie and NEC projectors and most 3D systems (active or passive). Lamps are no longer needed and projected energy consumption savings are 50% versus xenon.
According to Ottoni, the LUX lifetime is projected at 30,000 hours and includes an internal cooling system and a method for proportionately using laser diodes. Light decay (not visible to cinemagoers) at the end of life is only 20%, according to product specs.
“Naturally, projector manufacturers want to protect market share and prefer selling new projectors, and in some cases scare exhibitors about choosing third-party laser technology,” says Ottoni. “But all of our installations demonstrate that retrofitting a xenon projector using LUX is a smart path to improving projection quality and preserving past investments.”
According to Richard McPherson, NEC Display senior product manager for projectors, “Advancements in laser phosphor technology have enabled projector manufacturers to increase brightness at a lower price point than was possible in the past. NEC has embraced the overall projection market with a multitude of projectors with varying types of laser.”
For those projectors from 5,000 to 12,000 lumens, its base engine design is blue laser with yellow phosphor. Above 12,000 and up to 35,000 lumens, the engine consists of RB laser with green phosphor. At the top end, NEC has an RGB laser system delivering 35,000+ lumens.
The development of a 35,000-lumen RB laser with green phosphor had not been achievable until the introduction of the NC3541L (Digital Cinema) and the PH3541L (Large Venue). This new configuration brings laser/phosphor technology to the high end to compete directly with RGB laser, according to McPherson.
He adds, “Laser is becoming a more predominant player in the industry because it eliminates traditional maintenance concerns and costs associated with lamps in older projectors. Also, they retain their brightness levels longer than traditional projectors, so TCO is reduced over the lifetime of the projector. Because of these reasons, NEC is committed to continuing to innovate customer-centric solutions to deliver even more value for cinema operators,” he concludes.
Laser is at last becoming a more appealing choice for exhibitors, says Oliver Pasch, sales director for Sony Digital Cinema 4K: “In our view, the earliest offerings from other manufacturers didn’t impress in terms of either image quality or cost efficiencies over the best non-laser solutions like our own R500 Series. We’ve always been focused 100% on giving audiences the best possible pictures. Now laser is maturing to the point where it’s a valuable complement to lamp-based systems.”
Sony recently unveiled its first 4K laser phosphor projector. The new SRX-R800 Series is High Dynamic Range (HDR)-ready. It’s also offered as a dual projection system for high-brightness images on large screens with smooth 3D. The R800 offers a groundbreaking 10,000:1 average contrast ratio, ideal for HDR content. That’s even higher even than the 8,000:1 contrast achieved by Sony’s current R500 4K projectors that use a low-maintenance HPM multi-lamp array.
Separately, Sony has shown an early prototype of its advanced RGB laser solution. Targeted squarely at high-end PLF screen owners, the system supports a far wider color gamut than today’s DCI spec. Still in development, the RGB product uses a twin light engine teamed with a single projection lens, allowing extremely natural high-brightness 3D images.
Looking further into the future, Sony has also showcased its Crystal LED technology as an additional option for tomorrow’s high-tier screen owners. This radical “no-projector” system uses an array of high-brightness display modules that can be tiled to create an ultra-large screen of any proportions, with no visible gaps between modules. Already offered to Sony’s corporate and industrial users, Crystal LED achieves a huge color range, very wide viewing angle and an unmatched contrast ratio. But, as Pasch says: “Crystal LED is some way off being a commercial product, and it’s going to occupy its own specialist niche. Right now, exhibitors have never had a better choice of lamp- and laser- based 4K solutions for any size of auditorium.”