The light behind the projector: trends in projector light source technology

A Mitsubishi projector from the 700 series

A Mitsubishi projector from the 700 series

Hot off the press, this is an article I wrote for the Integrated Systems Europe show daily, which appeared on Day 2 (January 30th 2013).

While lamps remain central to projector illumination, newer solid state technologies such as led, hybrid and laser light sources are offering more portable, longer-lasting and cheaper alternatives. “You don’t have to replace lamps, there’s no mercury and it’s quicker to turn on and off,” says Mike Fisher, senior analyst at Futuresource. “Brightness varies and in theory, colour performance should be better, but that’s still work in progress.”

On the low end, projectors that generate under 1,000 lumens of brightness tend to use pure LED. “The mobile, small ‘pico’ projectors have been getting brighter over the last number of years, “ says Fisher. “As they edge towards 1000 lumens, I think they are going to cannibalise the ultra-mobile entry-level mainstream market.” There’s a rise of solid state in the mainstream market between 2000 to 3000 lumens. “Casio were first a long way ahead of everybody with their 2,000 to 3,500 lumen hybrid led and laser technology for education,” says Fisher.

Hybrid sources produce green with blue laser on a rotating phosphor wheel, as green lasers are expensive. “One of the advantages of hybrid over lamps is longer life, claimed to be 20,000 hours,” says Matthew S. Brennesholtz, senior analyst at Insight Media. “You pay extra but a heavily used hybrid projector won’t require a lamp change. Hybrid is gaining market share.”

Brennesholtz names other companies that followed Casio’s lead in 2012: BenQ offered hybrid in January, followd by ViewSonic and Optoma in February and Acer in August. At ISE, Mitsubishi enters the solid state market with a 2,500 lumen ultra-short throw hybrid projector for mobile corporate or education users.

Pure LED is present in the mid-market, between 1,000 and 1,200 lumens. “It’s maintenance free and offers lower TCO than lamps,” says conference speaker David Aleksandersen of projectiondesign. LED can be found in projectiondesign’s FL35 and FS35 IR projectors and Digital Projection’s M-Vision series.

“LED makes it difficult to drive brightness over 2,000 lumens, where laser steps in,” says Fisher. BenQ recently introduced its 2,000 lumen BlueCore laser short throw projector to the corporate and education markets. In the high-brightness space, laser is being actively explored by Christie and Barco and probably by Sony and NEC, according to Brennesholtz.

Demonstrations in 2012 were promising, with Barco projecting with laser at 55,000 lumens and Christie reaching 63,000 and 72,000 lumens on a prototype laser projector. “By comparison, a single xenon lamp produces 35,000, maybe 40,000 lumens, so laser suits extremely high-brightness applications like digital and 3D cinema,” he says. “Very few laser projectors are commercially available. Christie doesn’t expect to introduce one until 2015, lasers are too expensive.”

“Providers are demanding high premiums and the volume isn’t high enough to drop prices,” adds Fisher. Aleksandersen estimates laser costs 15 to 20 times more than other light sources. “On the regulatory side, a laser projector over 5,000 lumens requires a handheld firearm license in Europe or the USA,” notes Aleksandersen. “Pure-laser safety can also be an issue in consumer and conference room projectors,” says Brennesholtz. “This does not appear to affect hybrid projectors.”

High-pressure mercury and xenon lamps are still successful. Mercury-based lamps, which are cheaper, may even affect the hybrid mid-market as their lifetime expands, according to Brennesholtz. “Hybrid generates 1,600 to 4,000 lumens, competing directly with mercury lamps. In 1995, lamps lasted up to 2000 hours. Now they last up to 6,000 and even 10,000 hours at lower brightness and are getting brighter,” he adds. “Hybrid, while significant today, may not be in five years time, if the price of pure laser comes down or the lifetime of lamps keeps improving. Mercury lamps do a great job producing green.”

Most manufacturers still offer a mix of light-source technologies. “The rise solid of state has been slow to this point, because manufacturers are trying to provide the right product at the right time,” concludes Fisher.

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About monicaheck
Monica Heck is a bilingual freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

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