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Projectors and the rise of immersive and interactive installations

Despite Covid challenges, key verticals are being boosted by new trends

Despite the obvious challenges of Covid, projector manufacturers are continuing to benefit from the rise in immersive applications across multiple verticals, writes David Davies.

In a year when so many public spaces have been closed and live events cancelled, it would be reasonable to expect 2020 to have been a rather undistinguished year for the pro AV projector market. But if it’s unlikely to have been a milestone year sales-wise, it has certainly been an important one in further underlining the trend towards more immersive and interactive installations in a variety of key verticals. And we’ve certainly seen some exciting launches too, with the world’s brightest single chip DLP laser phosphor projector from Digital Projection – the 23,000 Lumens, 10,000:1 contrast ratio M-Vision 23000 for budget-sensitive large-screen applications – and Christie’s Griffyn 4K32-RGB laser projector for theme parks, and indoor/outdoor sports venues, immediately springing to mind. 

Education, retail and corporate are among the verticals most frequently cited as benefitting from more immersive and interactive installations in the last year or so. And although applications are obviously the subject of considerable variation, they tend to share an emphasis on engaging people in new and creative ways – increasingly in conjunction with other forms of media and special effects.

While the more basic daily requirements for high-end projectors have not gone away, it is evident that manufacturers are also – to quote BenQ UK AV sales head Lee Dent – “carving out a niche for themselves within creative installations where no other display platform could fulfil the requirements”.

Vibrant verticals
Invited to consider the areas of pro AV in which demand is strongest at present, Dent pinpoints the role for high-end projectors in creating “immersive and interactive experiences” in retail environments.

“As well as for showrooms and within luxury brand destinations, we’ve seen a rise in requests for these style of experiences in supermarkets and food halls as they become more experiential in their delivery of information and also entertainment.”

It’s all part of what Dent labels “the reimagining of the customer experience by bringing products to life, showcasing real-time dynamic pricing alongside traditional methods of digital signage, and keeping children entertained – giving parents more time to shop”.

Mark Wadsworth, vice president of global marketing at Digital Projection agrees that immersive experiences are key to the projection market’s robustness. “We are seeing a general up-tick in most sectors at the moment,” he says, “but some of the most resilient have been in areas that require immersive experiences.

There is also, he says, a general consensus that there will be a strong post-pandemic demand for entertainment and shared experiences, and “we are already seeing some interesting projects being specified around this area.”

Robert Meakin, professional projectors product manager at Sony Professional Europe, is not alone in identifying the continued resilience of the education market, but he also cites increased adoption by “museums, creative spaces and entertainment areas”, which are adopting projectors to create a “unique experience and environment that uses the best laser technology, edge blending and colour reproduction”.

Peter Kirkup, global technical solutions manager at disguise, says that the company has “embraced the virtual world” more fully in a year when the scope of in-person events was limited. But in the non-virtual world, he alludes to the role of high-end projectors in “more complex” productions that may include projection mapping, automated scenery and elements of virtual reality. Moreover, he says that such projects are taking place in “broadcast, film production, theatre and live events”.

Foreseeable futures
Several respondents also referred to the impact of the pandemic on the type of deployments taking place now and probably also for the foreseeable future. Ross Noonan, Optoma’s technical product specialist, says that immersive and sensory spaces are the biggest growing vertical in projection.

“With the recent global restrictions and lack of events, we could see a further increase in these installs as events are scaled down and delivered more locally,” he adds. In terms of specific applications, “immersive walkthrough of exhibitions, museums and even house viewings” are where he sees projectors are being used in “interesting ways”.

Sharp NEC Display Solutions Europe senior product manager Gerd Kaiser is hopeful of renewed interest in larger public spaces once the pandemic is under control. “Museums, entertainment, corporates and higher education are all strong users of projection for content delivery to large numbers of people,” he says. “Also, once widescale vaccine implementation gets underway and the immediate threat of Coronavirus subsides, the public will be keen to make up for lost leisure time, and so I’m confident we’ll see a return to large venues over the coming year or so.”

Triumphant technologies
In terms of the leading projector technologies, it is apparent that several established trends are still very much ongoing. With traditional lamp technology receding, the popularity of LED projectors – which benefit from longer life-cycles, reduced power consumption and lower-heat generation – has continued to grow as their reliability and output have increased.

But during the last 2-3 years, in particular, there has also been a boom in laser projectors, which can be delivered with higher lumen output and are therefore suitable for larger venues looking to achieve large-format projection while retaining brightness and image quality. Hence it’s no surprise to discover that laser-source projectors figure prominently in recent product launch cycles, with many companies working to add their own distinctive lustre to laser.

Brad Martin, senior product manager at Christie, is among those to indicate that laser has now come of age. “With recent advancements in projection illumination like RGB pure laser, colours can match that of the LED display, thereby giving the ability to mix technologies for applications such as live performances or larger scale visual experiences,” he says.

Pointing to new Sharp/NEC products including the PA804UL and PA1004UL installation laser projectors, Kaiser remarks that “laser light source technology means that projection is delivering consistent high brightness over long, maintenance-free lifetimes.” Unique to Sharp/NEC, filter-free LCD technology means there is no need to change filters or replace bulbs. With the newly designed sealed optical engine, the LCD panels are protected against dust contamination for long-term picture stability and brilliant colour brightness. Kaiser: “With no filter cleaning or lamp replacement necessary, service costs are dramatically reduced for a low cost of ownership and up to 20,000 hours’ lifetime”.

For Optoma, a key recent launch is what Noonan describes as “the world’s first fixed lens 7500 lumen WUXGA laser projector”, the ZU720T. Suitable for venues including lecture theatres and museums, the projector offers a 1.8x zoom and 1.4~2.5:1 throw ratio, full lens shift and built-in dual 10W speakers.

BenQ’s Dent notes that both LED and laser light sources have enabled projector manufacturers to achieve greater image quality and uniformity as well as longer product lifespans. Among its recent launches there is also recognition of laser’s suitability for larger venues, with the LU9255 incorporating BenQ’s BlueCore Laser and dual-lamp light sources to deliver an ultra-high brightness from 5,000-10,000 ANSI lumens. “[This projector] is ideal for 360-degree installations – for example, where they are turned on their side to create portrait images in non-standard spaces.”

Dean Tsai, head of projector and LED display business unit at ViewSonic emphasises the varying requirements of different venue sizes and configurations, remarking that for small-to-medium spaces, LCD panels have become increasingly adopted by customers with fewer]budget concerns, while others still take projectors for their better cost-performance value.

“But when it comes to applications in larger venues and requests for over 100in screen size, projector solutions are widely applied [with regard to their] large screen sizes (up to 300in) with lower cost-per-inch, greater installation flexibility, lower transportation requirements and [greater] peace of mind – all without the bothersome stitching grids and panel alignment/calibration needed for combining multiple LCD panels.”

Mark Wadsworth also points to virtual reality and 3D as important technologies going forward, with the brand’s MultiView technology front and centre.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in virtual reality and telepresence, especially with our MultiView technology that allows multiple people to interact in a VR space, all from their individual point of view.” he explains.

“We’ve all seen stereoscopic, ‘3D’ images, where our left and right eyes see different views, the effect being that we get a perception of distance and depth. In these conventional 3D installations, everyone sees the same images, no matter where they are positioned relative to the screen, so just two images are required, one for all the audiences left eyes and one for all of their right eyes. This is acceptable where the audience is seated some distance from the screen and they are viewing pre-prepared content, such as a 3D movie.”

But, he goes on, what if we want viewers to be able to move around relative to the screen and interact with the projected 3D images in a way that makes sense from their changing viewing angles and distances?

“In other words, we want viewers to be able to get out of their seats and walk up to and around the 3D object as it floats in space before them! It is already possible for an individual to view images in this way through a process called ‘Head-Tracking’: the projection system uses camera-based technology to follow a viewer and update his 3D view as his position changes. This works well for one viewer, however other viewers looking at the screen will be frustrated that the image from their perspective will not make sense. 

“Digital Projection has developed a way to allow up to six viewers to each see high quality 3D images on a common screen. Each of the six viewers can move around and view a 3D image that remains convincing from their individual changing perspectives. The impact of this is transformative: not only does each viewer become immersed in his 3D environment, but the confidence that the other viewers also see things correctly and contextually from their differing positions creates a truly collaborative environment. That’s Multiview!”

All-conquering add-ons
With ‘immersiveness’ cited as a priority for more and more installations, it’s to be expected that edge blending – the technique whereby several projected images are combined to create a single seamless image – is now one of the leading ‘add-ons’ for new projectors. Indeed, many manufacturers are now offering it as standard in their latest solutions. Beyond that there are plentiful innovations aimed at improving image quality and calibration, integration into other AV systems, and more fluid management of multi-projector installations and workspaces.

We have offered technology such as edge blending in our projects for years,” says Wadsworth, “but this is now even easier to control centrally via our Projector Controller software where all aspects of the projector can be managed from a central location. Allowing up to 265 projectors to be centrally managed speeds up both the installation and any fine-tuning that may be required. This is a free piece of software that is being constantly updated with more features that the market demands.”

Gerd Kaiser adds that built-in edge blending in Sharp/NEC projectors can be used with the free-to-download ProAssist software to achieve the multi-projector uniformity required “to create a vast digital canvas. While laser light sources already support high brightness and with 4K resolutions achievable, this can be increased even further by using edge blending technology.”

Along with edge blending, Panasonic Business Europe senior marketing manager Hartmut Kulessa emphasises the popularity of geometric adjustment, which prepares the content to be spread out on uneven surfaces in order to compensate for any distortion in the perspective. “Both areas can be configured from the media server – or if the projector has the capability built-in, by the projector,” he says. In terms of the Panasonic range, both features are built-in as standard with 1-DLP, 3-DLP and LCD products designed for those applications.

For Sony, Meakin notes that “most of our technologies are embedded into our projectors rather than added-on, but edge blending would be classed as a key add-on technology and can be found on all our projectors.” Among other add-ons, Sony has facilitated the connection of its workspace management tool TEOS to projectors and displays, enabling it to be used as a “central control hub for signage and content”.

For disguise’s software-on-hardware solution, Kirkup highlights the ability of its OmniCal camera-based projection calibration engine in improving projection quality and set-up time: “OmniCal works by quickly capturing a point cloud of the projection surface in the disguise software, accurately calibrating projectors and conforming pre-existing surface meshes to match reality.”

Continual evolution
With more elaborate multi-projector installations on the rise, Christie’s Martin remarks that “ease of managing and maintaining projectors will continue to evolve, with software leading the trend”. Christie offers several system management tools to support pro AV installations, including dynamic web UI interfaces, virtual remote control, SNMP and Christie Conductor, an advanced software solution, available for download to Christie customers at no cost. With Conductor it is possible for users to monitor and control up to 256 supported Christie 3DLP projectors on the same network via a laptop, enabling remote firmware updates, health checks and simplified multi-projector control.

Pixel Artworks is a specialist light and pixel project company with an emphasis on turning “any surface into content that excites, informs and inspires”. For managing director Tom Burch, it is clear that technologies which tackle shadowing constitute some of the most important add-ons as interactivity becomes more widespread: “The main challenge with interaction and front projection is shadowing – creating a high demand for innovation in optics to complement the ever-improving light engines. A wide range of interactive systems utilising Lidar [which stands for Light Detection and Ranging] for gestural and skeletal tracking provide the interactive toolkits that we need.”

General optimism
At the time of writing, with second waves of Covid-19 hitting countries worldwide, it can be hard to feel too optimistic about the year ahead. But on the basis that the vaccination roll-outs proceed as planned, suppliers seem generally optimistic about the prospects for one or more key verticals.

Sony’s Meakin says the pandemic-related closure of universities had an impact, removing the need for projectors inside classroom and large auditoriums. “But I do think that once students start returning to universities to continue their learning, the bigger classrooms and auditoriums will be used much more to respect social distancing measures – and so the need for an easy to use, high quality laser projector will be essential once more.”

disguise’s Kirkup expects the recent evolution of virtual productions employing immersive environments to continue alongside that of non-virtual spaces: “More than ever, art and entertainment content needs to be communicated in such a way that it immediately connects with the audience. As a result, many creatives have embraced virtual, augmented and mixed reality to deliver their narratives when in-person events are not possible.”

Wadsworth says the pandemic has affected “almost every market”, with many projects being delayed or cancelled, although he’s optimistic. “The experience economy though is expected to rebound. We are also interestingly seeing some movement in the education sector where previously a flat panel may have sufficed, a projector is now being specified as the students will need to be more spread out, thus meaning a bigger image is required.”

Final word goes to Panasonic’s Kulessa, who believes that there will be renewed opportunities in markets including corporate and entertainment: “We do expect to see a rebound in 2021 as people are keen for entertainment experiences, although the style of entertainment may differ. So instead of travelling to a rock concert with 100,000 visitors, people will look for local attractions in more controlled and managed environments.”