Looking forward to laser: Is the new technology ready for primetime?


Laser projection promises exciting benefits for cinema operators. But with some big practical and commercial questions unanswered, is this nascent technology ready for primetime just yet?

Since launching the world’s first commercially available 4K projector in 2007, Sony has been consistently at the forefront of technological innovation in digital cinema. Currently there are almost 18,000 Sony 4K systems installed worldwide. These range from the industry-leading R320—and its “double stack” configuration for large screens—to the compact, affordable R500 series that’s fine-tuned for smaller theatres.

Today, there’s excitement in the cinema industry about migrating from well-proven projection systems to a new generation of products using a laser light source. Compared with the traditional xenon lamp found in today’s projectors, laser offers several potential benefits.

High onscreen brightness levels are the most immediate attraction for laser, particularly for 3D projection where polarizing filters can cause appreciable light drop-off that’s noticeable in the biggest theatres. A laser source also offers a far longer lifetime than conventional lamps, with little deterioration in light levels over its operating life. This is potentially as long as ten years or more in normal commercial operation, compared with lamp replacement cycles of around 500 to 2,000 hours for xenon. Effectively eliminating the risk of catastrophic lamp failure, cinemas can avoid the nightmare of dark screen outages and consequent lost revenues. What’s more, largely maintenance-free operation promises appealing savings in lifetime ownership costs.

It’s no surprise that Sony has been exploring the possibilities of laser for a long time, having demonstrated its viability for large-scale projection as long ago as 2005. Outside the cinema industry, in 2013 Sony launched the world’s first 3LCD business projector using a laser light source. But it’s important not to confuse this with products designed for theatrical presentation that are designed to operate at far higher light levels.

Whether they’re going digital for the first time, or thinking about replacing their previous-generation digital projector, operators must consider carefully whether these as-yet-unproven products will address their real business and operational needs. Can the first laser projectors unveiled by other manufacturers offer any real-world advantages over proven technologies? In the real world, it’s what’s actually onscreen that matters—and here Sony 4K is the gold standard for sheer detail, color depth and all-important contrast that exceed DCI specifications in every Sony projector.

Alongside unanswered questions about picture quality and reliability, the biggest obstacle facing laser right now is its commercial viability. The last five years have seen widespread industry migration from 35mm film projection to digital. Inevitably, this has meant big investments by cinema operators in replacing their analog fleets—a process made considerably easier by Sony implementing, together with distribution partners, the VPF (Virtual Print Fee) scheme that dramatically lowered upfront costs for operators in switching to digital.

Big capital investments are often predicated on lengthy payback times, often over a decade or more in the cinema industry. Laser’s first customers will be paying a very big early-adopter premium: It’s therefore hard to see the justification to thousands of exhibitors that are still amortizing their relatively recent digital switchover costs.

“At this point in cinemas’ investment cycles, where’s the incentive for another significant round of capital outlay?” asks David McIntosh, VP of Sony Digital Cinema 4K Solutions for Europe and the Americas. “Particularly if the pictures you’re promising audiences with laser will struggle to beat what current-generation 4K already delivers?”

As McIntosh stresses, Sony already has a market-leading portfolio of (non-laser) 4K products in the marketplace right now, with a clear road map for years to come. “If you want a best-in-class 4K projector today, buy Sony. What do you have to gain by taking a risk with unproven first-generation laser product? We outperform it on any parameters you care to mention: brightness, efficiency, running costs, picture quality and support.”

“We’ve been around longer than anyone else, and we know how to do it properly,” McIntosh adds. “When we do bring a new generation of laser products to market, we won’t disappoint our loyal and very enthusiastic customers. And that’s something every cinema should bear in mind while they’re planning their capital expenditure over the next few years.”

As laser technology gradually matures, Sony is committed to the goal of delivering ultimate image quality to its customers at realistic cost. Therefore we will introduce these products to the market when the time is right. And certainly not any time before 2015, when the technology—and the business case for our customers—will make laser a compelling alternative to today’s unbeatable Sony 4K projector lineup.

In the meantime, Sony remains fully committed to support its industry-leading lineup of 2D and 3D projection systems for years to come. Indeed, you’ll continue to see further refinements to the current generation of products that will keep giving cinema audiences an amazing 4K experience for years to come.