Digital Revolution: Projection Systems

May 28, 2004
John Storyk of Walters-Storyk Design Group (WSDG) has vivid memories of how life was before the advent of digital projectors. “We used to really have to design a room around the CRT projector and its focal length,” he says, but now “I put the projector where I want to. I don’t even think about it anymore.” Virtually every corporation and school that WSDG works with can be happily equipped with a single-chip DLP or LCD projector. “It’s a perfect fit for us.”Much of Storyk’s design work involves control rooms where producers and audio and video engineers work on a variety of different kinds of projects. The Walters-Storyk Design Group has designed more than 1,400 media production facilities throughout the world and the U.S., including a recent studio for film composer Carter Burwell in Tribeca (NYC), Tim Mosley’s new Timbaland Studios, and the cutting-edge Interlochen, Mich., Public Radio complex.“Projectors today are better, cheaper, smaller, and quiet,” Storyk proclaims. “Smaller and quieter has been a godsend for us.” And once they’re installed, he says, “you don’t have to send in a rocket scientist to fix them.”Indeed, today’s digital projectors today are much smaller, brighter, quieter, easier to use, and much less expensive than were their analog predecessors. Three main technologies exist in digital projection for business use: LCD, DLP, and LCOS. LCD and DLP are the predominant choices today, but manufacturers are making strides with LCOS and that technology could soon be very competitive.LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display. These projectors usually contain three separate LCD glass panels, one each for red, green, and blue components of the image signal. As light passes through the panels, individual pixels can be opened to allow light to pass or closed to block the light. Think of them as a Venetian blind. This action modulates the light and produces the image that is projected onto the screen. Many companies offer LCD projectors for business.DLP stands for Digital Light Processing. This is a proprietary technology developed by Texas Instruments. Instead of using glass panels, in a DLP projector light from the projector’s lamp is directed onto the surface of the DLP chip. That chip contains literally thousands of tiny mirrors which move back and forth, causing the light to go either into the lens’s path to turn the pixel on, or away from the lens’s path to turn it off.There are tradeoffs with either technology. Most people believe that LCD delivers better color saturation and a somewhat sharper image than does DLP. LCD projectors tend to be more light efficient than DLP because the technology inherently produces a brighter light with the same wattage lamp. However, the images from some LCD projectors tend to show pixelation, and they don’t always deliver a great contrast ratio or impressive deep black levels. DLP has some inherent benefits over LCD. DLP projectors tend to be smaller and lighter than LCD. And they deliver excellent contrast ratios and deeper black levels.LCOS stands for Liquid Crystal on Silicon. This technology is in many ways a cross between DLP and LCD. In an LCOS projector, liquid crystals are applied to a reflective mirror substrate. As the liquid crystals open and close, the light is either reflected from the mirror below or blocked to modulate the light and create the image. LCOS projectors deliver very high-resolution images but, for now, tend to be more expensive than the competition.Business ApplicationsChoosing from among the three types of projectors is usually a very subjective thing. All three technologies produce excellent, reliable projectors. Storyk calls it “incredible” that he can now offer clients a four-pound projector for less than $3,000 that can deliver a crisp, bright image five feet wide. In a recent project he even had a client question his bill, saying it seemed too low. “Projectors are basically now a commodity,” he says.Personally, Storyk doesn’t see brightness as a key issue, although he concedes that, thanks to digital technology, affordable projectors are brighter than ever. “Brightness was never an issue in home theatres,” he says, because in those situations it has always been relatively simple to deal with ambient light. For business applications today, Storyk says that brightness “is not the first issue.”Another recent development in digital projection technology is also affecting the design of business spaces, especially offices. It is that many of today’s digital projectors now have networking capabilities.Sander Phipps, projector product manager for Sony Electronics, believes it is every bit as significant as the other advancements. “The advent of networkable projectors has moved products away from being an ‘island’ to become an integral part of the office infrastructure,” he says. “This allows presenters to share information among each other, which results in collaborative presentations and meetings.”It also means that people can conduct a business presentation without needing a computer. And, says Phipps, “The new feature sets found in networkable projectors such as Sony’s VPL-CX85 means fewer people can more easily maintain and monitor projectors across a network.”He believes this feature, in addition to lower prices, is expanding not just how projectors are used in business but where as well. “As the [price] of projectors comes down, the number and types of businesses using projection technology increases,” Phipps says. “Going forward, smaller size will certainly be a trend. As well, projectors will become ‘smarter’ with onboard storage and processing technology.”Beyond the growing use of digital projectors in business environments, new advances in digital projection technology are definitely having an impact on the design of screening rooms and other cinematic spaces. Harry Mathias, director of media technology at NEC Solutions (America), points out that most of his company’s recent “digital cinema installations have been in the ‘infrastructure’ of Hollywood, post-production facilities, and screening rooms.“The technology for digital cinema has been changing so rapidly that it doesn’t make sense for us to go out and train on digital technology at this point. So in the meantime, we’ve stepped up and begun doing this ourselves.”Mastering FacilityGary Heathcote, AIA, NCRB, is the owner of Heathcote & Associates in Los Angeles ( He founded the architecture, interiors, and planning firm 23 years ago and is proud of what he calls its multidiscipline capabilities. “We like to do anything avant garde,” he says. “We like to do the weird things.” His most recent project was anything but weird. Heathcote recently designed a digital mastering room for Laser Pacific Media in Hollywood, one of the premiere post-production facilities in the world. Most of the television programs one sees are edited at Laser Pacific as are many major feature films, including such successes as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Seabiscuit. Eastman Kodak purchased the facility earlier this year.Digital mastering is a relatively new phase of the post-production process. It follows the traditional editing phase and is where the sound and image quality of a movie is fine-tuned. Just a few years ago most of this process would have taken place in a film lab but advances in digital technology, including digital projection, are changing that. “We renovated a space that was previously used as a soundstage,” Heathcote says. In fact, the soundstage was originally built for Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker and other famous cartoon characters. The room is about 3,000 square feet and has 30-foot ceilings. An editing console is at the front center of the room.In the past, a film editor would work in a small room viewing the images on a relatively small video monitor. Periodically he or she would take the footage to a screening room and see how the work looked projected on a big screen. Invariably there would be subtle differences, and the timing of many edits and effects that seemed perfect on a small screen simply looked wrong once the image was projected large.Now, at Laser Pacific (and an increasing number of top post-production facilities) the work is done right on the big screen. Producers, directors, cinematographers, and other people involved can watch the mastering being done firsthand. This greatly streamlines the process and, ultimately, both enhances creativity and saves time and money.“The thing that was exciting for all of us,” Heathcote says, “was seeing this as a break from film and to have the editing capabilities in a big room on a large scale.” The screen is 31 feet across, and the projector is a Christie DP2000 powered by three DLP chips. “We did tests with other projectors,” Heathcote says. A 35mm film projector produced an image that he felt was very grainy. He says the image from what he termed “a regular video projector” was filled with visible lines. He says the Christie projector delivers a dramatically superior image. “I couldn’t see any kind of grain or any pixelation at all,” he says, adding, “The amount of black you can get is amazing. The clarity you can get from this projector is amazing.”The wall separating the projection booth from the theater is curved. Heathcote says he did that mainly to create visual interest. Digital projection also allowed him to use less space for the projection booth than a film projection system would have required. The architect also designed “a very sculptural ceiling” whose focal point  is a piece of maple folded into a V shape. Although he believes the ceiling is visually dramatic, he took care to make certain that the screen is the true center of attention. “We didn’t want the ceiling to take over what is being projected on the screen.”“We did 48 fixed seats,” he adds. The leather stadium seats are from Spain. The project was a year in planning, says Heathcote. Construction lasted about five months and cost about a half million dollars.Design FlexibilityPeter Scharff, a founder of Scharff Weisberg, Inc., a New York City systems integration company, says the effect that digital projection technology has had on room design depends on how broadly you define the term. “If you define it in real broad terms, then it has changed room design because of brightness and because of size,” he says.His company has provided video, audio and show control technology for a very wide range of applications, including theatrical, corporate, museum, exhibit, and broadcast. Supported by a staff of more than 87 full-time employees, the company has designed and installed a number of unusual projects, including the Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, NikeTown NYC, and PetrosainsScienceMuseum in Malaysia.In a typical business setting in the past, he says, rooms had to be very dark and it was very difficult, from a technical standpoint, to set up a projector for even a routine presentation. Today’s projectors deliver “far more flexibility,” Scharff says. “You can design a room any way you want.”He cites one example in particular, the NEC WT600 (see photo), of a digital projector that offers “a lot of flexibility” when creating a space. The WT600 has one of the shortest throw distances of any projector on the market. It uses aspheric mirrors instead of a traditional optical lens to create the extremely short throw, producing a 40-inch image while only 2-1/2 inches from the screen and a 100-inch image from less than 26 inches away.A bank of WT600 projectors was used for an exhibit this past winter at the FowlerMuseum at UCLA. In the exhibit, visitors viewed a 60-foot-long, 12-foot-high projection of evolutionary relationships between human genes and those from a rice seedling. The presentation was prompted by a very shallow gallery space and the need to project a large-scale image without visitors’ shadows casting onto the screen.Scharff calls that kind of technology “another tool in the arsenal” and notes that, today, “video projection is so much simpler than it used to be.” In fact, the players that run projectors are more complex than the projectors themselves, which is a reversal of the way things were a few years ago.  Most office spaces typically have very low ceilings and projector placement was always an issue. “Where can you realistically put the projector in a 20-foot-wide room with a 9-foot ceiling?” Scharff asks. Today, the answer is basically anywhere. “Video is no longer a fixed thing,” he says. “I’m excited about the prospects of finally breaking out of the 4:3 box.“The image can become part of the architecture of the room. It can become a part of the wall.”NICK DAGER IS THE EDITOR AND PUBLISHER OF DIGITAL CINEMA REPORT, AN ONLINE NEWS SERVICE ABOUT WIDESCREEN PRODUCTION AND PRESENTATION. HE CAN BE REACHED AT [email protected]

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