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21st Century Classroom

Interesting Developments

New projector technologies and features offer improved picture quality, reductions in operation and installation costs, and challenge our ideas about where and how projectors can be used.

Interesting DevelopmentsWHAT'S NEW IN PROJECTOR TECH? July 2008 figures from Pacific Media Associates reveal that two leading technologies, LCD (the current choice of most professional A/V installers) and DLP (which grew out of digital cinema), now control better than 95 percent of the education market. Both camps have developments to report.

The Lowdown on DLP

As the projector industry anticipated, more DLP projectors are now employing Texas Instruments' BrilliantColor technology, designed to improve color performance. According to Bob Wudeck, business development manager for TI's pro A/V group, the system "enhances both color brightness and accuracy by adding additional primary colors [yellow, cyan, and magenta] to the normal red, green, and blue primaries." TI spokespeople-- and a horde of projector vendors incorporating this technology into their products-- claim that the innovative use of "multiprimary" colors allows vendors to build color systems that can dramatically enhance color performance without paying a penalty in brightness. Since the price point for entry-level models used by much of the education industry has dropped into the $500 range for projectors delivering 2,000 lumens at SVGA resolution, both DLP and LCD technologies exist in offerings that are more color-accurate, brighter, and more affordable than previous generations.

In addition, because most DLP projectors have sealed imaging chips, they are filter-free, which helps guarantee continued good performance, and can lower maintenance and support costs. Especially in the case of ceiling-mounted projectors, regular servicing to clean and replace filters can be expensive, difficult to schedule and, depending upon your institution's liability policies, may require outside contractors. Filter-free projectors can eliminate that expense. What's more, portable projectors that rely on filters are harder to track for regular maintenance and can suffer from poor performance or damage before the need for filter cleaning is discovered.

Still, you should be looking for the new wave of DLP projectors that boast increased warranty protection with TI's five-year DLP chip warranty (announced at this year's National Educational Computing Conference). While each manufacturer will be providing details on its own warranty extensions, major manufacturers like BenQ, InFocus, Optoma, Toshiba, Vivitek, and ViewSonic all have expressed an interest in offering TI's plan to support one-chip DLP projectors used predominantly for education, conference rooms, and home theater. The new warranty also will apply to the more upscale three-chip DLP projectors for auditorium use. This would be the industry's longest available protection of its type that does not include an hours-of-usage restriction.

DLP vs. Laser: Projection for Lilliputians

A few years ago, TI launched a trend when it started leaking the company's research into DLP chipsets that could be used to build "pico projectors" minute enough to fit into ultra-small housings and run off of batteries. While we still may not be quite ready for projectors in our mobile phones and handhelds, we've heard the rumors and over the past year have seen some impressively tiny prototypes (at consumer electronics shows and on the web) from Toshiba, 3M, and Microvision. Now TI is poised to make such diminutive projectors a reality by supplying the pico DLP chipset that will be used by Toshiba and Optoma; according to TI spokespeople, both companies will have handheld projector offerings shipping in 2009. These pocket-sized personal projectors are about the size of a large cell phone; they run on batteries and will project a bright image with good contrast (for a letter-size page).

Other technologies for picos, like LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) and laser, have shown promise but have not garnered the same acceptance by the manufacturing community. But with several generations of TI's OMAP (Open Multimedia Application Platform) architecture-- which integrates software with mobile hardware in popular personal devices, and is supported by mobile industry leaders such as Microsoft and Sony-- it seems only a matter of time before personal devices like iPods and portable DVD players have their own DLP projectors built right in. It won't be long before faculty and students will be putting pico projectors to work sharing personal media anywhere on campus, displaying presentations and vodcasts with almost no setup.

Looking to LCD

LCD still dominates the pro A/V market (which includes large schools and universities), according to Rina Bhuva, senior strategic marketing manager for 3LCD. "A/V professionals continue to choose this technology over competing technologies for several reasons including better color performance," she says. While both DLP and LCD camps claim to have the best color, critics start to see marked differences only at the price point for network-ready projectors with XVGA resolution (about $1,000) or above. Even then, the answer to which is better has everything to do with the application: DLP projectors offer better contrast specifications, which can be key in some applications where rendering detail is required, but many feel that while advancements have been made in DLP color reproduction, LCD color is still more accurate and appealing.

Proponents of LCD technology like Tim Anderson, 3LCD product marketing manager, are so confident of the color accuracy and output, they are calling for the adoption of a new industry-standard specification to indicate a projector's "color brightness." With no such specification for color performance currently available, this metric would, says Anderson, be more informative for consumers than the current industry convention of solely measuring a projector's maximum white light in ANSI lumens. Based on performance averaged across a nine-point color grid, the new color brightness specification would appear in ANSI lumens alongside the traditional measurement for white light output and be a comparative indicator of a projector's color performance. 3LCD is clearly leading the charge for this new metric, with support from manufacturers like Epson, which in 2009 is likely to be the first to include the new color brightness metric along with its other specifications.

New from Sanyo and still in its infancy, 4LCD projection technology (also know as QuaDrive) promises to deliver improved brightness and color accuracy. 4LCD adds a proprietary color-control device to the existing red, green, and blue panels found in standard 3LCD projectors such as those from Epson and Mitsubishi. The color-control device, or fourth panel, allows the engine to automatically control the amount of yellow light in the image, producing higher luminosity and clarity, and responding to the demand for brighter projectors in large venues. Sanyo claims that the new 4LCD engine, combined with a new, high-speed image-compensating chip, allows for up to 20 percent more color space than a conventional LCD engine, delivering better color at higher outputs.

While Sanyo is saying that its new PLC-XP200L 7,000- lumen XVGA projector ($9,995 MSRP) will revolutionize LCD projector solutions, many are waiting to see how the new technology proves itself in real-world applications.

LCoS: Infinite Color and Superb Accuracy

In addition to LCD and DLP, the newer LCoS technology is also an important player, though it has many fewer units out there than its competitors. An analog technology, LCoS modulates light as it passes through liquid crystal cells and before it is reflected by a mirror substrate, making it, essentially, a hybrid of LCD and DLP technologies. Introduced by Canon, LCoS provides advantages in terms of higher resolution and the complete lack of visible pixels. Teamed with this is the ability to provide continuous color variation, making LCoS projectors capable of delivering an infinite color spectrum, totally smooth images, and sharp display of small text. LCoS projection products also claim to eliminate the flickering or "screen door" effect (fixed-pattern noise) of its competitors. Sony's version of LCoS is called SXRD (Silicon X-tal Reflective Display).

Because of its extremely smooth color and brightness gradient, LCoS is particularly well-suited to applications that demand highly accurate image rendition, as you might find in the medical, photographic, and simulation markets. LCoS is ideal in this sense for monochrome applications such as the viewing of X-ray films and photographs.

Going Wireless

New wireless projectors with fully integrated IEEE802.11b/g interfaces are offering transfer modes that transition between images more smoothly, as well as wider compatibility with other PC and network hardware. As part of a network, projectors continue to be key to developing trends in education, such as enabling content to be projected from audience PCs, easy switching between multiple presenter sources, and training modes where projected images go directly to audience PCs. Presenters can reference files on a server, enabling easy downloads directly to audience laptops, thus eliminating the hassle of preparing printouts (also saving trees and money). Video-streaming modes supported by the major manufacturers allow for display of full-screen MPEG2 (30 fps) video with high-quality audio.

What's more, standard features for projectors now include robust security and data-protection components, like WPA-PSK compatibility and support for recent security encryptions such as 802.1X. You'll also find new projectors to be compatible with a wider range of user authentications, including WPA-EAP (enterprise mode), EAP-TLS, EAP-TTLS, PEAP, LEAP, and EAP Fast.

Short Throw

The new generation of ultra-short-throw projectors is particularly appealing for classroom settings, not only for easy setup in incredibly tight quarters, but because these projectors put the light source behind the instructor. Using innovative technologies such as aspheric mirrors, this generation of ultra-shorts is boasting both improvements in brightness and ease of installation, along with fully integrated IEEE802.11b/g wireless interfaces and Mac OS compatibility. In addition to technical advances, look for new personal features like the built-in Easy Electronic Board capability in NEC's WT615, a function that allows users to draw on the projected image screen as they would a whiteboard. And don't overlook Sanyo's PLC-XL51, an XGA projector with a brightness of 2,600 lumens ($3,995 MSRP), which has been outfitted with a built-in vibration sensor that sounds an alarm when the unit is picked up-- an effective way to hang on to your hot new projection toy.

-Andy McDonough is a freelance writer and technology consultant based in Middletown, NJ.

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