The Solution is Resolution
Dec 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer
In the once-sluggish LCoS projector market, resolution reemerges as a key differentiator.
It has been the better part of a decade since XGA-resolution projectors started making serious inroads into an SVGA-dominated market. Today, while SVGA projector models are still viable, satisfying a value-oriented sector of the business, XGA has very slowly become the standard for the majority of units sold. But moving from XGA to higher resolutions has been virtually the sole domain of digital cinema products.
During the same period of time, the industry has witnessed an unrelenting drive toward smaller, brighter, higher-contrast models, improvements that have greatly enhanced the effectiveness of front projection and expanded the projector business as a whole. Yet, while those improving specifications continue to impress, they've also become expected, even predictable. Differentiation has become harder to achieve.
Now there are signs the projector industry may be ready to come full circle and turn to resolution again. And the reasons are obvious, if not far overdue. XGA is now an effective minimum standard, but by no means sufficient for most computer desktops, and HD video production is now maturing in professional circles and emerging at the independent producer level. There's an obvious need for higher-resolution displays for both computer and motion video sources that are capable of preserving the higher quality of the material being shown.
Over the last few years, several higher-end manufacturers, including Barco, Christie Digital, Digital Projection, NEC, Panasonic, and Sony, have introduced higher-resolution projectors for the fixed installation and staging and rental markets. Over the last year, Christie and Digital Projection have introduced ultraportable (under 8lbs.), single-chip DLP-based units with SXGA+ resolution. JVC, with its D-ILA version of LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) technology, has had “portable” class high-resolution models for a couple of years. However, the large majority of higher-resolution projectors are still in the much heavier weight classes, serving more exclusive markets.
A NEW ENTRY
That may be about to change, starting from a rather unlikely corner. Canon recently introduced the new Realis SX50, a 1400×1050 (SXGA+) projector that's only 8.6lbs. And while that alone is not so special — Christie and Digital Projection units are both even smaller and have the same high resolution — Canon's will have a street price of just $3,999, and that's a significant price difference. Indeed, the Realis SX50 is the only SXGA projector available for less than $10,000. With a brightness specification of 2500 lumens and a contrast ratio of 1000:1, amazingly there's not much of a premium there for the increased number of pixels.
Interestingly, unlike many of Canon's projectors, indeed unlike much of the projector industry overall, the Realis SX50 is not the direct result of OEM partnerships with other manufacturers. Joining JVC with D-ILA and Sony with SXRD, Canon has developed a proprietary version of LCoS (AISYS or Aspectual Illumination System) for the technology inside the Realis SX50. While there's nothing memorable about that technology branding, there may be something special about what Canon has been able to do with LCoS by increasing brightness in the Realis SX50.
Sony's home theater Qualia 004, an SXRD-based projector.
By comparison, JVC's current 13lb. D-ILA projectors carry a brightness specification of 1500 lumens, reflecting a common perception that LCoS technology can't produce both high brightness and strong contrast. At 2500 lumens and 1000:1 contrast, the Canon's specifications are comparable to many DLP and LCD projectors in the same class.
That leaves the higher resolution as a clear differentiation. While the Realis SX50 has a native 4:3 aspect ratio, the increased resolution enables it to display a true 16:9 720p HD image. Admittedly, to truly address the HDTV age, Canon would do better to come out with a native 16:9 version. One step at a time.
THE FUTURE OF LCOS?
Canon's introduction comes at an interesting time for LCoS technology as a whole, and the success of the Realis SX50 at such a low price point could be a major boost for LCoS. Achieving high resolutions has never really been in question for LCoS; however, LCoS has been slow to evolve.
JVC has been promoting the high-resolution virtues of D-ILA for several years, although the company's product evolution has not kept pace with the rest of the industry. Admittedly, that may have much to do with end-user prices of an emerging technology in a very competitive business. But similarly, Sony has announced SXRD-based projectors with great fanfare over the last two years, yet today only one projector, the home theater Qualia 004, is available and only through an exclusive network of dealers. Sony did recently announce an SXRD rear-projection TV that could dramatically increase SXRD's unit volumes.
Yet, while those companies are continuing to move forward with LCoS, other LCoS proponents are going in the other direction. Hitachi is scheduled to reach the end of life on its one LCoS projector this month, but has no plans for another LCoS-based replacement until at least 2006. RCA and Toshiba have both discontinued LCoS as a potential rear-projection solution for consumer products. Philips has just announced that it will not continue with LCoS despite having shown products for more than a year.
But the biggest LCoS news, aside from Canon's Realis SX50 announcement, is from Intel. A year ago at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show, Intel boldly announced that it would be entering the LCoS market and producing chips to build large display products. This past summer, Intel delayed those plans, citing the immaturity of the potential market. Then in October, the same month that Canon announced the Realis SX50, Intel ultimately pulled the plug on LCoS production completely.
Still, none of those LCoS disappointments will be remembered very long if Canon is successful producing and selling the Realis SX50, especially at a price that adds higher resolution for almost nothing. If the Realis SX50 is a hit, the entire projector industry will want to take another look at resolution innovation as the way to gain market share.