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Technology Showcase: Home-theater Projectors

Aug 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

The most innovative front-projector systems.

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Digital Projection dVision 30-1080

Digital Projection dVision 30-1080

These are awkward times for the home-theater front-projector business. Despite the fact that prices are dropping even while projectors' features get more exciting every year, recent sales have been disappointing.

Quixel Research, a market-research provider covering the consumer market for advanced TVs, has been tracking this trend. After hitting a peak of 338,972 home-theater projector units in 2006 — accounting for $657.9 million in sales — Americans purchased only 289,459 front-projection systems for the home in 2007, for a total of $579.5 million. Quixel Research predicts a 43-percent drop in sales from Q4 2007 to Q1 2008 for mainstream consumer projection systems — although the high-end enthusiast market, including models that the total installed costs can often top $100,000, remained solid.

In addition to our country's economic slowdown, the dip in domestic sales of mid-level projectors may be due to the lowering cost and increasing screen sizes of competing flatpanels — which are easier to see in ambient light for many viewers. Another factor may be the limited lamp life of most projectors, which often need to be changed after several thousand hours compared to the more than 60,000-hour to 80,000-hour half-life of most flatpanel illumination systems.

With two major technologies vying to provide the light engines inside the projectors, according to Quixel Research, the LCD approaches — including the reflective LCoS implementation of liquid-crystal technology — represented almost 70 percent of sales in Q1 2008. The remaining 30 percent were using the DLP technology from Texas Instruments.

Home-theater enthusiasts who can afford the top-of-the-line front projectors are reviving the concept of a screening room that was once only applied to film-projector setups adorning the entertainment salons of Hollywood's rich and famous. At the center of this trend is the increasing move toward installations that can accommodate the 2:35 aspect ratio that most widescreen films are actually shot in.

BenQ W20000

BenQ W20000

When Thomas Edison established the first de facto aspect ratio for his films in 1892, he did it by deciding the 35mm film frame would be 4-perf tall — giving it a ratio of width divided by height of 1.33. This lasted, with lots of variations, throughout the silent era. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sought a standard that could include space for a soundtrack in 1932, they established the Academy aperture frame of 1.37 by making the frame lines thicker. This remained the nexus of projection apertures until Hollywood decided to answer television competition by giving audiences a widescreen experience in the early '50s.

The CinemaScope system, which 20th Century Fox introduced with The Robe in 1953, was superceded when Robert Gottschalk founded Panavision later the same year. Panavision has since supplanted its predecessor, most famously when Frank Sinatra insisted Fox dump CinemaScope in favor of Panavision when filming Von Ryan's Express in 1965.

During most of the 20th century, theatrical-film audiences were presented with aspect ratios ranging from the early European widescreen standard of 1.56 to the 2.76 of MGM Camera 65 used on 1959's Ben-Hur. TV viewers, however, were stuck with the boxy 1.33 raster of the boob tube — which has also become known as the 4:3 aspect ratio.

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