Laser projector and planetarium-maker Evans & Sutherland will unveil a new system at this week’s InfoComm A/V show that produces a record video resolution of 8000×4000 pixels, or 16 times that of 1080p. The projector’s notable features might give planetariums and other so-called specialty locations, where it will be first used, the means to compete against the IMAX format going forward.
Key to the high-res is ESLP 8K’s NanoPixel imaging chip, according to Marketing Director Jan Bjernfalk, which allows “no visible gaps between pixels” in a fast-moving image, a level of detail other projectors often render as blurry. He says the “ribbon-style” architecture controlling the chips (achieved by twisting a flexible slate to deflect wavelengths of light, like undulations of a bridge) gives it its edge. Whereas the ESLP 8K’s ribbons create intermediate intensities between full-on and full-off pixel light transitions in 200 nanoseconds, the best LCD and LCoS devices switch in milliseconds, or thousands of times slower. The extra speed allows the three RGB chips of the ESLP 8K projector to also create a more intense colorful image (through a wider color spectrum) than others.
As we’ve noted before, the speed of frame transitions in chip architectures is important in video tech, especially in formats requiring realistic movement and depth, like 3D. The less so-called persistence present in left-eye/right-eye 3D image reproduction, the better an image looks. According to E&S, to get the same 3D resolution level of one ESLP 8K, you’d need four LCoS projectors or two DLP systems. Though DLPs actually come closest to E&S’s high-res production, they still fall behind by having each mirror on a chip correspond to a pixel on-screen. Many IMAX Digital Projection systems use DLP’s projectors.
The projector’s commercial availability (starting in the third quarter of this year) will be limited by its price tag, which is roughly $750,000. But E&S says the device offers good value over time through energy and materials efficiency — its laser lasts 30,000 hours, for example, doesn’t suffer a color change (LCoS bulbs need replacing every 800 hours), and uses about 1,500 watts. Also, high-end planetariums usually need to buy an optical star-ball (which can cost $1.5 million or more) and additional projectors to achieve the same resolution.
Moore’s Law says the projector’s semiconductors (including diode laser arrays) will eventually come down in price and size. Which brings us to the ESLP 8K’s potential as a challenger to big-screen projectors made by companies like Sony (s sne) and IMAX (s imax).
The ESLP 8K’s new flat- and panoramic-screen form factor may give planetariums the opportunity to move beyond niche content to offer more big-time, blockbuster Hollywood movies. A quick resolution comparison shows makes clear it could compete. Sony recently announced it would install its 4K Digital Cinema Projection systems in all 309 of AMC’s theaters, starting this year, which go up to 4096×2160 in pixel resolution. IMAX uses two 2K Christie Digital DLP projectors for their new retrofitted digital IMAX screens, along with their patented image processing system. Because E&S produces content for domes focusing on VR and geosciences, they’re not seen as viable competition. This is true mainly due to hurdles in location availability, price and licensing issues. For example, retrofitting theaters to fit the new digital screens from IMAX (which Roger Ebert calls “IMAX Lite”) costs over $100,000, not including the cost of sound and image processing for the full “IMAX Experience.” Yet, IMAX had to compromise its super-large screen-only identity in order to expand, and the video in these new theaters has been criticized as less than great. Sounds like an opening for competition to me. E&S’s Bjernfalk says the company isn’t currently looking into this option, but noted that the 8K supports the resolution of digital IMAX with only one projector.
In order to fully maximize the value of the ESLP 8K projector, planetariums are going to have to use the flat-screen option and be more aggressive in mixing up content. A compatible patent-pending process from E&S that converts large-format video (like that in the biggest IMAX screens) into domes could offer another option and may lead big-time movies to play consistently on dome-size screens.
This might be a good opportunity for planetariums to try something new. While IMAX screens and planetariums have co-existed for years, the popularity of the IMAX format and its growing slate of varied content, including nature movies previously only seen in planetariums, might be replacing people’s incentive to try out the latter. A small (and unscientific) poll sample of worldwide planetarium stats shows that while overall attendance has gone up over the last 14 years, the approximate attendance at the domes at the equivalent size of the biggest IMAX screens (from 18 to 30 meters), came to 6.8 million people in 2008. IMAX attendance, on the other hand, brought in a bit more than 9 million people through the gates, based on dividing its $130 million gross in 2008 by an average price of $14 a ticket. Admittedly, there are more big-screen IMAXs around the world than there are big-dome planetariums. Still, there’s way more buzz with IMAX. The Peoria Riverfront Museum, for example, recently noted in a funding paper that people tended to choose its IMAX-only shows over its planetarium-only shows by a 4-1 margin.
But James Hyder, the publisher of LF Examiner (a large-format film analysis publication), recently argued that the most immersive theaters aren’t confined to flat-screens and that IMAX isn’t necessarily the best large-format theater. Instead, he says, “[T]he star field presented on a large dome by a top quality electro-mechanical planetarium projector is arguably more immersive — in the sense of creating the illusion of reality — than any film or digital projector to date.” If E&S’s new projector can match the star field illusion for a digital projector for the first time, as it claims, then the resolution, the immersiveness, and the content could match the IMAX experience and offer even more options.
One could argue that the new popularity of the IMAX format (which until this year’s “IMAX Lite”, mostly relied on its big screens) has exposed more people to the big-screen experience and made planetariums a more desirable attraction, even without the latter’s use of popular Hollywood content or improved projectors. In effect, the status quo can continue and both can thrive in their own way. But IMAX Inc. wants to be the dominant big-picture format and more movie studios now want to show their movies there. Unless the future brings many more planetariums that can convert from domes to an IMAX-style theater, in a single space, I think the quality of the new projector technologies gives “specialty” venues no choice but to try to reel in bigger movie audiences in the long term. In the meantime, offering lovers of big-format pictures another cool option with great resolution can only be a good thing.
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