Laser Focus: A Look at the Latest Offerings in Laser Projection

Investment in RGB laser technology has been on the rise over the past several years, bringing brighter, crisper images to cinema screens worldwide. According to research firm IHS Markit, RGB laser installs reached a worldwide count of 638 screens in 2017—up from 385 screens in 2016 and 89 in 2015.

“An increasing number of cinemas are being inaugurated with all-laser projection that harnesses a mixture of premium RGB laser on flagship screens interspersed with more economically viable laser phosphor,” explains IHS analyst Charlotte Jones. “While laser is becoming a dominant technology for new venues, there has also been significant activity replacing first-generation digital projectors with RGB, particularly at the premium end of the cinema-going experience.”

That growth is most relevant on the global stage. Over 44 percent of today’s laser-equipped screens are located in Asia Pacific, where China and South Korea rank as the top two biggest markets. More mature markets like North America and Europe claim 28 and 17 percent of the market share, respectively.

“The growth story is being driven by a new industry benchmark for premium screens requiring brighter 3D presentation and HDR technology, with some exhibitors upgrading all PLF-branded screens to RGB laser. There are also signs the wider market is moving away from a trial phase to a distinct commercial one with a niche but growing trend for top-of-the range cinemas outfitted with all-RGB laser projection.”

IHS reports the presence of RGB laser projectors in more than 45 territories worldwide. Considering the rise of the technology, Boxoffice checked in with senior executives at three of the worldwide manufacturers at the forefront of producing and selling state-of-the-art laser projection systems to theatrical exhibitors across the globe.

BARCO

“The operational efficiencies of Barco Smart Laser projectors—and the elimination of costly lamps and associated maintenance—allow us to upgrade our cinema experience for the lowest possible total cost of ownership,” says Gabriel Morales Becker, digital cinema strategy director for Cinépolis, one of the global leaders in theatrical exhibition.

Barco’s Flagship Laser portfolio (for premium screens) launched at the end of 2014, and its line of Smart Laser projectors (for all screens) followed closely behind the next year. “The market has embraced laser-powered projection as the new norm,” says Carl Rijsbrack, chief marketing officer of Cinema Barco, “and we’ve responded with the largest and most comprehensive portfolio of laser projectors in the industry to provide exhibitors with a perfect match for every screen that meets all their needs.”

Barco continues to add new models to its smart laser portfolio and they will have 12 different varieties as of March. According to Rijsbrack, “With 4,000-plus smart laser projectors in the field, we quadrupled the number of our laser projectors in one year up to the point where we now sell more laser projectors than lamp-based projectors.”

Impressively, they expect this trend to continue—at an accelerated pace—as more exhibitors are convinced of the merits of laser technology. “Our laser projectors come with higher image quality, easier operation and 80 percent lower yearly op-ex than the best lamp-based equivalents. Looking at our numbers, we clearly see that the shift to laser-powered projection is shifting into high gear,” Rijsbrack says.

How does Barco view the competitive landscape? “Exhibitors want to create amazing movie experiences while reducing operating costs, be it for their premium screens or for their mainstream screens. We take time to listen to them and leverage the minds of our 1,000-plus engineers to come back with the right visualization system the cinema industry needs.”

Under its SmartCare warranty plan, exhibitors need not worry about how their projector’s light source output will evolve over time. By providing superior image quality with guaranteed light output, the program offers 10 worry-free years of operation. SmartCare also includes 24/7 service support and full parts coverage.

Kinepolis, a long-time Barco customer, opened the first “all-Barco laser” multiplex (10 screens) in 2016 in the Netherlands. The facility features one Barco Flagship Laser and nine Smart Laser projectors. “Visitor numbers have been exceeding our expectations since Day One, which is fantastic,” says Vicky Vekemans, theater manager for Kinepolis. Customer-satisfaction surveys show that patrons clearly prefer laser-illuminated projection.

Switching to laser projection has also helped the European exhibitor reduce energy consumption by 30 percent, and Kinepolis has opened three additional all-laser cinemas powered exclusively by Barco systems. According to Rijsbrack, when you factor xenon lamp savings into the equation, including reduced HVAC costs, exhibitors have been experiencing aggregate annual op-ex reductions of as high as 60 to 70 percent.

On the revenue side, when Flagship Laser systems are paired with PLF systems, theater owners also have the potential to generate significantly higher admissions receipts. Research indicates that consumers are willing to pay more at the box office for the overall superior viewing experience on the larger screen.

Christie

When it comes to impressing the most creative and discerning visionaries behind the camera, Christie proudly lists ringing endorsements from three of the industry’s all-time best directors. According to the company, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and Ang Lee all choose Christie technology to develop, produce, screen, and deliver their ultimate cinematic visions to appreciative audiences around the world.

Many movie circuits also count themselves among the biggest fans of Christie’s cutting-edge in-theater projection systems. This includes one of the leaders in overall screen count in the world’s fastest-growing country for new cinema construction.

“Our longstanding, strategic relationship with Christie has delivered thousands of digital cinema projectors to theaters across China,” says Jack Wang, chief technical officer, Wanda Cinemaline Corporation. “As we continue to grow our domestic cinema-market share, we are looking closely at the Christie CP4325-RGB RealLaser projector as a strong candidate for our lineup.”

According to Brian Claypool, Christie’s vice president of global cinema project management, “We anticipate an increase in adoption rates as we develop and introduce a line of Christie RealLaser projectors, designed for mainstream cinema.”

In recent years Christie has deployed hundreds of complete RGB laser projection solutions for cinemas, including its own models as well as the high-dynamic range (HDR) systems the company has developed with and continues to supply to Dolby Cinemas. Initially, the adoption rate of first-generation RGB systems was primarily driven by worldwide premium large-format (PLF) installs.

What is holding the laser industry back from even faster growth? “The main gating factor is that lamp-based cinema-projection systems are doing fine, with 99 percent market share for digital-cinema installations,” says Claypool. “There have never been more xenon-based cinema projection devices than there are today, with more than 100,000 digital cinema projectors worldwide still delivering an attractive total cost of ownership (TCO).”

As a result, exhibitors are justifiably hesitant to replace their xenon systems without a clear representation of value, either in terms of image quality enhancements or a superior TCO. “At Christie, we look at supplying the industry with a mature RealLaser illumination technology that provides a clear advantage in both image quality and TCO,” says Claypool.

The organization’s most recent offering, the aforementioned Christie CP4325-RGB RealLaser projector, was launched late last year at CineAsia 2017. It employs next-generation RGB pure laser devices, and the company’s R&D team has succeeded in eliminating the need for any external cooling, drastically reducing complexity and costs for the system, without sacrificing longevity. The system ensures an impressive and reliable operational life of more than 30,000 hours, with only a 20 percent loss in brightness over this time.

The CP4325-RGB boasts contrast ratios of up to 6000:1 and provides better uniformity and a wider color gamut than competing cinema laser projection systems, according to the company. In addition, the projector’s compact form-factor means that it can be easily integrated into standard cinema booths with no additional external equipment required.

The system offers a wide color gamut exceeding DCI P3 specifications, enhanced contrast ratios, and high frame-rate (HFR) compatibility. It features Christie’s new CineLife Series 3 electronics and embedded cinema automation for streamlined playback, scheduling, and content management. Field tested on hundreds of screens since 2014 with the next-generation Christie IMB-S3, their CineLife Series 3 electronics provides backward compatibility with existing Series 2 IMB architectures.

The idea of bringing a RealLaser-based projection system to the market with sizable advantages in both image quality and TCO is resonating with Christie’s broad and diverse international customer base.

“The three (Christie) CP42LH projectors we have installed so far in our premium auditoriums have given us an incredible competitive edge in the market,” says Luis Millán, owner of the Spanish cinema chain Odeon Multicines. “Our customers love the picture and really notice the difference in color saturation, clarity, brightness, and higher-contrast image quality. So, we are looking forward to the launch of the CP4325-RGB with its innovative and compact form factor design that reduces system complexity and cost, while also providing a wide color gamut,” adds Millán.

Not all laser projectors are created equal, cautions Claypool. “Only RGB pure laser can deliver the image performance worthy of succeeding xenon as a mainstream cinema projection technology,” he says. “In addition to providing the right light for the right application, Christie is committed to creating and delivering all technologies—including projection, processing and audio (with Christie Vive Audio).

“All our efforts are aimed at delivering products to the market that improve the exhibition experience, as well as improve the business fundamentals for exhibitors in general,” he concludes.

NEC

According to senior product manager Richard McPherson, NEC has a current worldwide installed base of 4,500 laser projectors. “While studying the overall market share the adoption rate of laser may appear to be slower than expected,” he says, but that is not necessarily the case.

“The most important factor to understand is the ratio compared to lamp for new builds and Series1 replacements. That, along with screen size, determines the true adoption rate. For medium to large screen sizes the adoption rate is higher, while small screen sizes are still predominately lamp simply due to their location and cost.”

Cost, familiarity, and current VPF agreements are the most prevalent reasons for slower than expected adoption rate, says McPherson. Laser technology also comes with a slightly higher up-front price tag, creating the appearance of an inflated TCO, but this is a misnomer, he says.

“Familiarity breeds reluctance as exhibitors have been satisfied with the performance of lamp- based projectors since the industry went digital. Furthermore, exhibitors are tied to their current VPFs, which limits the ability to change out their current lamp-based projectors and move to laser.”

NEC covers the spectrum of laser technology in its offerings. From simple single blue-laser/yellow-phosphor systems designed for use with smaller screens to its RGB laser solutions geared to PLF screens, NEC provides technology designed for longevity and unsurpassed image quality.

“Exhibitors have been impressed with images delivered from every form of laser technology available on the market,” observes McPherson. “Blue laser / yellow phosphor, RB laser / green phosphor, along with RGB laser, create stunningly dynamic pictures without the loss of image brightness or brightness falloff in the corners of the screen,” he adds.

Premium projection will continue to evolve in the coming years, as more technologies are released under a more accessible price point. New offerings like Samsung’s LED cinema screen and solutions offering HDR quality images, will give exhibitors more choice on the format that best suits their cinemas. “The market for advanced presentation in cinemas is growing more complex, but the need to remain competitive and relevant in an increasingly technological world is one that continues to drive cinemas to up their game,” says Jones. “The major drivers remain brighter 3D and HDR technology amid rising competition from advances in the home, but increasingly the new competitive benchmarks [are set by] exhibitors themselves.”

Robert Rinderman

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