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Last Tuesday, I traveled to QVC Studios in West Chester, PA to check out some of Sony’s newest 2K and 4K projectors. In addition to a pair of high-brightness 4K models, Sony also had its new and yet-unnamed laser-powered 3LCD projector up and running, side-by-side with Panasonic’s PT-RZ470 laser/LED single-chip DLP projector.

The purpose of this demo was to compare color quality between both projectors, and with the express caveat that I have no idea what (if any) adjustments were made to the Sony projector; it certainly appeared to have an edge in color saturation over the Panasonic unit. (The latter projector still created some good-looking images.)

This 4,000-lumen laser 3LCD chassis is the same as Sony’s FH31-series projectors and has the same level of functionality – interchangeable lenses, edge blending, Ethernet control, etc. The only difference is that a laser provides the illumination, and Sony claims it will last to 20,000 hours, presumably hitting half-brightness at that point.

Sony's laser-powered 3LCD projector will have its coming-out party in two weeks.

Sony’s laser-powered 3LCD projector will have its coming-out party in two weeks.

I expect to see plenty of lamp-free projector demos in Orlando. Mitsubishi, BenQ, Optoma, Vivitek, Panasonic, Digital Projection, projectiondesign, LG, and NEC are all selling or getting ready to launch laser-powered and laser/LED hybrid projectors this year. And if Sony’s ready to christen a laser-powered 3LCD product, you can be sure that Epson and Hitachi will be close on their heels.

With the European Union turning up the screws on hazardous substances, the days of short-arc projection lamps are numbered. But the bigger problem is the “big LCD” runaway train – one that will eventually wipe out the “hang and bang” projector market.

From time to time, I run LinkedIn discussions about selected AV topics, and just started a new one on lamp-free projectors. And the early responses indicate that sentiment has swung in favor of replacing projectors with large LCD screens across a broad range of markets.

One respondent commented, “We currently have one building with about 30 classrooms that only use LED (LCD) monitors, and the faculty enjoys them immensely. They no longer have a bright light staring them in the face, and the students can see all the images displayed extremely well with much better clarity than with ‘standard’ classroom projectors. “

Here’s another comment. “I have been moving to LED (LCD) displays whenever I have input in a design — aside from spaces that require displays in excess of 120″ because of size. They’re always brighter, they’re more compact, and the maintenance on them is soooo much easier. Plus, let’s be truthful here, users view a 150″ (projected image) as ho-hum, but a 90″ monitor seems to IMPRESS.”

Not surprisingly, the issue of lamp replacements (cost, time involved, and inconvenience) came up more than once as a reason to switch to flat screens. “I would say that lamps took up close to 50% of our supply budget. Plus; maintenance, calls for immediate response, and filling out service ticket documentation, (replacing) a single lamp could take 45 minutes of a technician’s time (+/- 9% of the technician’s day for one response).”

From another responder: “Both financially and logistically, lamp changes are a BIG nuisance. Even with multi-lamp redundancy, critical spare stock is always advisable due to the uncertain stock and delivery issues. Even if one puts this cost aside, lamps can blow out at the worst times and any change that requires any combination of ladders, climbing, dismounting, disassembly, reassembly, and counter resetting is never a desirable situation. Flat panels are less of a hassle.”

Now the million-dollar question: Does lamp-free projection level the playing field with large LCDs at all? “As nice as laser/hybrid projectors are, I think they’re not quite ready for widespread use, especially in a classroom setting. And since we are in the process of moving away from projection as a whole, where they have been installed the 70″/80″ LED monitors, and even the 90″ monitors now, are getting rave reviews from faculty and staff alike on image quality, brightness, and ease of use.”

How about image quality? “I have looked at the Casio and Panasonic lampless projectors. I have purchased some Casio(s) for the portability, but until the image quality improves I will not be installing them for general-use classrooms. The colors are very drab when compared to LCD.”

And one last comment: “The emergence of more practical, brighter, and more affordable lamp-free projectors will definitely take some market-share away from traditional projectors, but I don’t think that it will have as much impact on the large direct-view display market. We’ve specified these large displays instead of projectors when there are ambient lighting issues, in situations where the colors and contrast of a projector just aren’t sufficient, and in spaces where projection isn’t physically practical…”

From my perspective, it’s a good thing that interest and activity in the lamp-free projection space are both picking up this year. The projector industry needs to show it can still innovate and remain relevant; lamp-free projection is a great way to do that and provide facility managers much-needed relief from the “burnt-out lamp shuffle.”

Even so, the once-safe market of small to mid-sized classroom and conference room projection continues to cede ground to large LCD displays with each passing month. With lamp-free technology, projector manufacturers have shown they’ve finally seen the light. But is it too late?

This article was originally posted on the Display Daily Web site.

Posted by Pete Putman, May 24, 2013 9:04 AM

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About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.