LASER CINEMAS – FAD OR REAL PROGRESS?
Sergey Puskov's Interview for Bulleten Kinoprokatchika journal
With the transfer of the movie screening industry to a digital platform, the flow of technology innovations in the industry has quickly overgrown from a narrow stream into a deep river, and it continues growing to ocean scales. Almost every major annual cinema exhibition presents new models of projectors, servers, 3D systems, new sound and tactile formats.
The most vivid trend of today's cinemas, both in general and figurative senses, is a new generation of laser light source projectors. But is it a new epoch of digital movies or some extraordinary extension of an equipment producer range? It is true what they say about high prices for these projectors? Can such technologies be applied in Russia? Would it be popular?
Recently, there has been more and more information on the so called "laser" projectors for commercial use. What do you think of them? To what extent does their obvious advertising implication due to such a loud word as "laser" cover real technological progress in the industry?
Indeed, there are lot of confusing words, anchor words in the infinite information flow which we have to deal with almost all day round. These words aim at capturing our attention. So "laser" is just a very good example of such ear-catching words (laughs).
Just think of these situations: "Yesterday we were to a laser cinema, and the movie was terrific, it was really bright in 3D!", "I heard there is some new laser cinema nearby, may be we can check it out tonight?" – and so on. Obviously, just one right word in the phrase can attract more guests to a new cinema.
The thing is that a cinema must really show something astonishing and impressing to attract more and more guests and to make the word-of-mouth advertising work. Al least it will certainly exclude other alternatives when choosing the recreation place.
And, it should be noted that here developers of new technologies and manufacturers of new equipment did a very good job, because one of the main advantages of "laser" projection is the fact that a viewer can always see something bright, easy-to-perceive picture all over the screen surface both in 2D and 3D formats, deep natural colors and stereo effects.
But what if we use an appropriate and configured xenon projector? Will the outcome be the same?
I am not going to give my personal estimation of it, but objectively this would be something remotely similar and short-time. Indeed, if you install a new projector with a brand new lamp with the help of an experienced technician with hundreds installations behind, then you can get a fairly good and appropriate picture.
And the opening ceremony as well as drinks reception will be all right. But then it is time for long-lasting everyday operation. Your technician will have to replace a xenon lamp in the projector every few months, which runs out of around 50 % of its brightness by the end of warranty lifetime. Eventually, the location accuracy and adjustment of optical elements of a projector lamp will decrease; moreover, the projector itself, which is generally a powerful vacuum cleaner, will deposit dust on internal light elements. And all these cumulating factors will lead to gradual deterioration of the on-screen picture. And they will influence viewer impressions from visiting your cinema!
But what about maintenance of a cinema by specialized companies? It should preserve picture quality, shouldn't it?
No doubt, it should and it does. But let's not forget that the professional maintenance of projectors is mostly carried out once or twice per year at best. Though this service is affordable, but it is still quite a large amount of money. For the rest of the time the equipment is in care of cinema employees who do not always skilled enough or lacks professional tools.
So, can the laser projection solve all these complicated issues and limitations?
Yes, it can, and these are so beautiful engineering solutions that it is indeed a new level or epoch in the cinema technologies. Let me try to explain the main points in a simple way.
Look, despite a few different design solutions, the principle of construction of laser cinema projectors is still the same. The light comes out of matrices and diode sets, and each of them emits the light of just one basic color – red, blue or green. The combination of these basic colors forms a clear white color which is what makes the on-screen picture.
Below are the peculiarities of "laser" diodes. First, they are very bright despite low power consumption: your projector is twice as bright, while the electricity bills, broadly speaking, are twice as low.
Second, the lifetime. It is not several months like xenon lamps, but years – at least 7-10 years. Besides, during the lifetime of "laser" diodes the on-screen picture has one and the same high level of brightness.
Moreover, your projector is not equipped with all those complicated optics to be adjusted and cleaned from dust – a "laser" light stream from diodes is directed right into the imaging device and then onto screen.
Also, your projector does not need all those electronics to operate a xenon lamp like a huge power unit, ignition unit with reliability-critical items which, as a result, are responsible for uninterrupted screening.
Thus, a "laser" projector generally does not require maintenance since it has no elements to adjust. The operation parameters of the diodes are controlled via network and the dust should be wiped off only from projector windows. So, you just leave you projector in a control booth to work for many, many years. Just forget about it. And just get used to permanent ideal picture on your screen.
This sounds very optimistic, but what about the financial part? You see, those "laser" projectors are way expensive than the traditional ones with a xenon lamp.
Let's not jump to some conclusions and look at the facts, not rumor.
First of all, you should not combine all types of "laser" projectors trying to find some average price for this screening technology.
Yes, there are so called "premium" RGB-6P projectors. Not going into details, you can just note that these are really the most advanced and powerful projectors with a "laser" light source as of today. With a new special housing and incredible light output of almost 60 000 lumens, they are designed to operate on screens from 20 m wide – these are premium cinema halls of large multiplexes, festival, concert, and IMAX halls. The price for such projectors varies depending on the light output required for a certain screen. It amounts to several hundreds euro which is within the budget for the construction of a top class cinema hall. Now we only deal with one of all expense items from a cinema budget, the price for a projector.
There is a separate equipment class called "laser-phosphorus" projectors. Their principle of forming the white light beam is different. They use only "blue" cheaper diodes and a special disk with a phosphorus coating which modifies their spectrum. This is the "middle class" of projectors with a "laser" light source. They are optimal for halls of medium capacity with screens of 10 to 16 meters wide. Such projectors have the same housing as the "xenon" ones. They have a "laser-phosphorus" module installed instead of a lamp. As a rule, this module can be installed on a projector which has been operating for many years. The price for these solutions, both for a new full projector and a separate "laser-phosphorus" module is within the same price range as that of a new "xenon" projector. The difference in their prices is not several times, but several dozens percent.
Another equipment class is represented by autonomous "laser" light sources which are produced in a separate housing and transmit a light beam into a projector with the help of a flexible light-pipe of 3 to 20 meters long. They have a modular construction and can work both with current projectors available in a cinema hall and new projectors from any producer, as a rule. The price for such light sources also significantly varies depending on brightness required.
Thus, having understood what type of a projector is required for a certain cinema hall you can make up a budget plan for your cinema. It is quite obvious, that the pay-back period for cinema business investments is not that short as it was at the beginning of a millennium and may take 5, 7 or even 10 years. That is why a complex evaluation of all expenses during this pay-back period is the right approach when making up a financial model of cinema activity. And this is when you realize the commercial efficiency of "laser" solutions. In 3-5 years, during which the expenses for a "xenon" projector are consistent with those of a "laser" one, you will no longer have to worry about those big amounts of money that you would spend on new xenon lamps, electricity bills and maintenance services. Thus, the pay-back period will be much shorter. Besides, do not forget about the image-building and "word-of-mouth" aspects of a "laser" cinema. Only benefits.
Even with all things considered, do you expect the price for "laser" projectors to decrease in the course of time?
I would like to say yes, but I also have a clear belief that the equipment producers are also economically-savvy and good at using a calculator. (Laughs) I do admit that the price aspect of a "laser" projector already includes some calculations of its potential buyer expenses for long-term purchasing of xenon lamps in case of using a common projector. It is unlikely that cost-cutting on the production of some "laser" component may cause a global revision of its price aspect. Besides, the expenses on development of a new class product are quite significant and the market is very limited. But I do want to be wrong about it!
Looking ahead some time, do you find this technology promising from the point of view of countrywide implementation?
I used to ask myself that question and, recently, participating in one of seminars from BARCO, a company with the widest range of laser projectors and clear plans on its dynamic expansion, I asked a representative from the company that question. His answer was really impressing. Just in several years, when all models of BARCO cinema projectors will employ laser light sources, the production of "xenon" projectors is planned to cut down to zero. What can I say? Yes, the new epoch of projection technologies is right around the corner.
And it is quite a pleasure for us to live in it. Summing up your interesting story, could you tell how popular the new technology is here in Russia today? Are we living in the era of laser screening already?
There is an aphorism for this: "The Russians take time to harness, but ride fast!"
The interest in the "laser" technology is huge. Both from installers and cinema owners. Now, at the initial stage of its implementation, everybody does some research, discuss it and calculate.
Some big Russian cinema networks have been installing several "laser" projectors in each of their new multiplexes since the last year. There are constant price inquiries for new equipment, trending up.
Russia is a country of great potential and my gut tells me that such a significant Europe-wide event in the area of "laser" projection may and should take place in the nearest future right in our country. I think it will be a good impulse for those who still hesitate.
I am sure that we are going to witness global retrofitting in the cinema industry pretty soon!
The article was prepared by the press service of Kinocomfort group.