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Projectors: growing importance of software

The nature of developments in the projector industry is undergoing a fundamental shift, in which hardware is now merely an enabler. Ian McMurray sheds light on what’s happening.

There are probably more engineer jokes in the world than there are about any other subject. For example: ‘Normal people believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Engineers believe that if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough features yet’. But not all engineers are created equal – and there are plenty of jokes about the mutual distrust between hardware engineers and software engineers. Another example: ‘The only thing more dangerous than a hardware engineer with a code patch is a software engineer with a soldering iron’.

The AV industry has, perhaps, tended to see itself as a hardware industry. Increasingly, however, it’s a software industry in which hardware is merely an enabler. Simplistically: hardware is what something is; software is what it does. That’s certainly the case for projectors.

“Many of the features that make the difference between a simple projector and an intelligent projection solution are a function of the embedded software,” believes Gerd Kaiser, product line manager, large venue projectors at NEC Display Solutions Europe.

“Software provides that link between the hardware and the user,” adds Lucy Meredith, field marketing specialist at Panasonic UK. “It gets greater flexibility and capability out of the hardware.”

It’s important, of course, not to understate the importance of hardware. It’s the combination of hardware and software that, ultimately, defines the solution – a point made by Dave Close, products and applications manager EMEA at Digital Projection.

Smart features

“Budget and lower-end projectors are almost a commodity product, with image quality now at a good level of performance,” says Close. “In order to differentiate, smart features and benefits are essential to bring success. These can indeed be software – but there are also leading-edge developments in illumination such as laser phosphor, which offers benefits in longevity and low maintenance as well as greater flexibility in mounting.”

Close also notes the power of FPGAs – powerful processors that are programmable with the desired functionality, and provide an optimum platform for a projector’s embedded software functionality.

He has an ally in Paul Wilson, business manager for projection at Epson UK. “The core function of a projector is to display large bright images, and we believe this is largely achieved through innovations to hardware such as the light source and imaging device,” he explains. “Embedded software definitely helps customers to use our projectors with ease and integrate them within wider solutions.”

Alexis Skatchkoff, product manager projection at Barco, makes a telling point in respect of what software can bring. “What makes a projector great is the combination of the hardware and what you do software-wise with it,” he smiles. “The nice thing with software, of course, is that you can improve it over the lifetime of the projector and so keep the product up-to-date or improve it.”

But what is it, precisely, that software delivers to today’s projectors? First and foremost, perhaps, is the functionality we’ve come to expect – and, increasingly, it’s becoming available at lower price points.

Opening opportunities

“Built-in software offering geometry correction – even in the lower end of the range – enables systems to be offered to clients where only high-end projectors could previously be used,” notes Close. “While at first sight this may appear to erode the sales of higher-end projectors, in fact, the opposite is true. It opens more opportunities for applications where budget sensitivity is a key issue. It gets you into tenders and opportunities where otherwise additional external hardware would be required, adding system complexity and cost.”

Scaling and de-interlacing are other examples of software-driven functionality – as is warping.

“Christie recently announced our TruLife electronics platform which forms the basis for the latest generation of projectors,” enthuses Jeevan Vivegananthan, senior director of product management at Christie. “It leverages the latest in FPGA technology to deliver a host of features, among which is pixel-perfect warping and blending at any frame rate.”

We now tend to take for granted that such capabilities will be included within a projector.

“Most of our installation projectors come with the edge blending and geometric adjustment software as standard,” notes Meredith.

Similarly, we take for granted ease of use – but this too is a function of software.

“One of the key elements of software is to make the user experience complete,” believes Skatchkoff. “It needs to be intuitive and easy to understand. It also needs to give the user the feeling that he is fully in control.”

What customers want

“Customers want an easy-to-use projector – one that gives them the flexibility and freedom to quickly and efficiently achieve what they want,” agrees Vivegananthan. “TruLife provides that in both simple and detailed formats that are consistent in offering – regardless of the human interface used, whether PC program, on-screen interface, web app or on-projector keypad/display.”

Their embedded software drives the user interface, and the user interface drives ease of use. But wait: there’s more.

“Embedded wireless presentation systems offer a very easy connection, meaning no additional software installation is needed,” says Kaiser. “The application is managed by memory thumb drive and all platforms – Windows, iOS, Android and Mac – are supported. It couldn’t be easier for instant wireless presentations.”

“And,” he adds, “our Image Express Utility sends Windows content wirelessly to the projector and our Wireless Image Utility sends presentations from your iPhone and enables your iPhone camera to act as a document camera.”

“Panasonic projectors feature the Wireless Projector App for iOS and Android, allowing projection of images over LAN, alongside a marker function to highlight and draw on the image,” adds Meredith, “and a Multi-Live mode that enables images from multiple devices to be relayed to a single projector.”

So: wireless connectivity also derives from the projector’s software – the latter adding valuable functionality for collaboration. In fact, connectivity in general is a significant feature in today’s projectors – and it too originates from software. Few high-end projector manufacturers today do not provide sophisticated facilities for remote maintenance, remote diagnostics and even remote control – and they provide ‘external’ software that enables users to manage their installations.

“Panasonic CARES is our cloud-based remote monitoring system which offers an additional level of service to our customers,” says Meredith. “Devices are monitored remotely for temperature, filter and lamp life and any potential issues can be pre-emptively tackled before a fault occurs or a lamp expires. This is hugely useful for larger projector deployments, common among our business customers.”