Electronic Design

The Projection Market Is Shifting Gears

The projection market encompasses products ranging from small portable devices that hook to laptops for business presentations to big behemoths for large-venue applications. Over the last 10 or so years, this market has been driven by rapid increases in on-screen performance. While this continues, we may be reaching the limits of some aspects. As a result, new dynamics are emerging to drive the industry. These include a bigger focus on network integration, ease of use, and price.

The big North American trade show that documents the state of the industry each year was recently held in Anaheim, Calif. Called INFOCOMM 2000, it was sponsored by the International Communications Industries Association (ICIA).

One fixture is the famed "Projector Shoot-Out," a special section where projectors run identical side-by-side images designed to help professional audio-video dealers choose the best products. This arrangement is useful when comparing the low brightness of CRT projectors and the image quality of emerging LCD projectors, but its value today has diminished.

Except in home theaters, CRT-based projectors have disappeared. The slightly smoother image quality and more familiar colors are still preferred by video enthusiasts, but that will soon change too. Also, the image quality of most projection systems has risen so that every entrant in the Shoot-Out looks quite good. Image quality can be subjective but is generally characterized by resolution, brightness, brightness uniformity, color reproduction, contrast ratio, and the lack of any artifacts.

Most systems are either SVGA (800- by 600-pixel) or XGA (1024- by 768-pixel), with some systems offering SXGA (1280- by 1024-pixel) resolution. These match most computer applications and are more than adequate for NTSC TV signals. XGA and SXGA are suitable for high-definition television.

Brightness and brightness uniformity have made impressive gains. Improvements of 20% to 40% aren't uncommon as models are upgraded as quickly as every six to nine months. Improvements in lamp technology, light shaping and homogenization elements, color separating dichroics, and the display panels themselves are all driving this.

Contrast has risen to very good levels with LCD systems and even higher, more than 400:1, with digital light processing (DLP) systems. Contrast is key to producing sharp, crisp images, but brightness is just as important. Side by side, images projected at 1100 lumens of brightness are noticeably better than those projected at 700 lumens.

Lastly, color reproduction is now starting to match that of CRT images. Projection systems using DLP technology, which has reflective mirror-element pixels, is outstanding in three-chip systems and improving in one-chip systems. Several companies are working to bring film-like image quality to LCD and DLP-based large-venue projectors for use in digital cinema.

Industry analyst Fred Kahn notes that CRT projection systems are improving at 11% per year, but LCD and DLP systems are improving at around 90% per year. Which horse do you want to bet on?

Projection systems also are pushing weight to lower and lower levels. At INFOCOMM, several companies debuted the latest DLP products—all at around three pounds. Last year, it was 5-lb. DLP systems that stole the show, but some think that 3-lb. systems may now be pushing the limit for DLP. LCD systems are fighting back with 5- to 6-lb. entries, but this technology may be bumping up against weight limits too.

So, if performance improvements have some room to go, but weight reductions look tougher, what else can projection manufacturers do? One approach is a push to make projectors a more integral part of the corporate infrastructure. That means making them smart nodes on a network so they can be managed, monitored, and even remotely configured to help users with presentations. Most major suppliers are starting to implement such strategies.

The other major lever to pull is price. Projectors today are still fairly expensive items. Indeed, the fastest growing part of the market, the low-weight projector, is usually above $3000. The key to greater growth rates will be lower prices. Most sellers think that $1500 to $2000 is the magic number, whereby the accessory projector isn't priced higher than the laptop computer, which should prompt many more corporate buyers.

This price point could also open up the home-theater market in a big way. Families could use ceiling mounted projector units to run DVD movies, view high-definition TV programming, or have a big high-resolution image for Internet browsing or interactive gaming. Getting to lower price points will take some work, but the payoff could be huge. These units don't have to be the lightest weight, as long as they have very good image quality, high enough brightness, and easy to use interfaces.

Products offering such capabilities are now selling for $6000 to $9000 because they are sold through the high-priced home-theater channel. These products need to be offered through conventional consumer electronics and PC distribution channels. The move into the PC channel is well under way, but there isn't much action yet in consumer electronics. Over the next year or two, there should be some very aggressive pricing of these products for the home market. Perhaps next year, this will be the big story from INFOCOMM. I hope to write it.

TAGS: Components
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