The Projection Connection
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 1 (Jan 2003)

The Projection Connection

When shopping for a projector, users traditionally have spent the majority of their time comparing the available models on the basis of four key characteristics: brightness, resolution, weight, and price. But as projectors have become more commoditized, it has been increasingly difficult to distinguish between competing brands based on those criteria alone.

For example, you can now find more than two dozen different models of projectors that weigh less than 10 pounds, offer at least 1500 lumens of brightness, cost less than $6000, and offer resolutions ranging from SVGA to XGA. At the higher end of the market, where brightness levels can range anywhere from 3000 lumens to 12,000 lumens, the choices are almost as numerous.

"Today," says market consultant Gary Kayye of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, "everybody announces that they have the lightest, brightest, cheapest projector. And they all do, because there are really only a few manufacturers actually making the projectors anyway."

Understanding that, projector vendors have begun to look for new ways to distinguish themselves from the competition. In some cases this has meant providing such extras as interchangeable lenses, more sophisticated graphical software interfaces, support for a 16:9 aspect ratio, and support for a wider range of video inputs. In June, Barco raised the bar for product differentiation when it introduced its IQ G300 projector, which incorporates a sophisticated picture-in-picture (PIP) capability as well as a built-in switcher that allows smooth transitions between visuals. No doubt other projector vendors will soon begin incorporating similar capabilities.

But of all the ways that vendors are trying to differentiate themselves, the most notable is the trend toward networkability. In the last eight months, the projector market has exploded with a wealth of new options that allow projectors to be accessed, managed, and shared over networks, much like a printer or any other IP-addressable device.

The advantages of connecting a projector to a network are two-fold. First, networking makes it easier for an IT or A/V manager to oversee a large stable of projectors that are spread out over a corporate facility or university campus. With networking, managers can diagnose problems, check lamp life, and adjust projector settings from a centralized, remote location. Second, networking makes it easier for presenters to deliver content to their audiences. Not only can a networked projector eliminate the cabling and technical coordination snafus that so often disrupt a multi-presenter meeting, but if the networking features are sufficiently sophisticated, a projector can also be used to create the kind of collaborative meetings typically associated with Web-conferencing systems.

The specific benefits one can reap from any given network-enabled projector depends on the way the vendor has implemented those networking capabilities. The most sophisticated examples include projectors that contain a built-in computer, complete with an operating systems, processor, and hard disk storage. Two companies that have taken the lead in building these kinds of projectors are Sony and Barco.

Sony's SuperSmart line of "networkable" projectors run the Microsoft Windows CE 3.0 operating system and feature a 400mhz processor and 64mb of storage. Meanwhile, Barco's IQ Pro series of networkable projectors take the computer/projector integration even more seriously, as they run Microsoft Windows XP and feature a 1.2ghz processor and a 10gb hard drive. Both of these projectors also come bundled with Ethernet connections and Microsoft's Internet Explorer for easy access to the Web.

With this kind of embedded computing power, presenters no longer need to carry their laptops with them to a meeting room, but can run the show right off the projector once they've stored their presentations—which can include PowerPoint files, JPG images, Excel files, or even video files—either right on the projector itself or on a network-accessible server. But that's just the beginning of the many advantages.

Because the presentations now sit on the network, a presenter doesn't even have to be in the same room as the projector. Control of a presentation taking place in Boston, for example, can be passed to a presenter sitting at a desk in San Francisco. Indeed, a presentation can be accessed simultaneously by remote meeting participants scattered about the country, and control of the presentation can be passed from one person's computer to another as needed. With that kind of capability, the projector, in essence, can be used as something much more than a display device for meetings. It can be the central component in a collaborative work environment.

One approach to networking employed by Sony and Barco also holds significant advantages from a control and diagnostics standpoint. In addition to giving the IT manager the ability to check projector settings and perform simple diagnostic testing from a remote location, these projectors can also be programmed to proactively keep track of their own affairs and automatically send out email alerts when potential problems are spotted. For example, they can send out an alert if they're disconnected from the LAN, and they can email your lamp reseller for a replacement part when lamp life gets low. And with just a click of a button, a facility manager can power up a fleet of projectors at the beginning of the day, and power them down just as quickly at night.

Of course, the networking power offered by the Sony and Barco projectors comes at a price. With all their embedded processing, the projectors cost several hundred dollars more than projectors from other vendors who've pursued more modest networking strategies that rely on Ethernet add-in cards or external network-enabling devices. The vendors following these kinds of network strategies can't offer all the robust content delivery features or the more sophisticated management and control capabilities of Sony and Barco, but they aren't necessarily convinced that's a huge disadvantage.

One such vendor is NEC. "Some companies," says Dan Zubic, product line manager for projection systems at NEC, " have basically put a computer inside their projector, which gives you a lot of functionality, but then you have a computer to worry about. And we know how crash-proof computers are nowadays. Plus you have to deal with software upgrades and that kind of thing."

Opting for a different approach, NEC has recently introduced nine new projector models that make use of an optional network plug-in card. While the NEC solution doesn't allow the projectors to share the kind of video files that Sony and Barco units can, Zubic says that NEC's proprietary ImageExpress technology allows its projectors to do more than the simple file sharing offered by some vendors. ImageExpress, he says, enables the real-time exchange of information over networks.

With ImageExpress, says Zubic, a projector can show whatever is on the presenter's computer screen. And because the technology is application independent, that real-time communication between computer and projector can happen regardless of the software being used. At the moment, that network communication can only happen at a rate of one frame every two seconds, making it impossible to transmit video streams, but in time NEC hopes to overcome that limitation.

Like many of its competitors, NEC also supports wireless networking via an optional Wi-Fi 802.11b plug-in card. With that option, presenters using individual laptops can pass control of the projector back and forth to one another without fumbling with cable connections.

Mitsubishi has taken yet another tack on the whole networking issue with the introduction of ProjectorView, an external device about the size of a deck of cards that can be used to connect Mitsubishi's LCD projectors to a LAN via a serial-to-Ethernet translator. Priced at just $699, the device is unique in that it is backward-compatible with Mitsubishi's older projectors—a nice option for those who want try out some of the benefits of networking without having to spring for the cost of a whole new projector. This approach doesn't provide the content delivery advantages provided by Sony, Barco, or even NEC, but it does give an administrator some ability to control, monitor, and mange projectors remotely.

Despite the recent flurry of activity in developing network-enabled projectors, few are willing to claim that networking features are driving projector sales in a significant way at this point. "In the corporate world, Kayye says, "the adoption rates of networked projectors have been slower than I would have expected them to be." However, he adds, it's important to realize that "we've had a significant market downturn in the corporate projector market as a whole. It'll be interesting to see what happens once people start buying projectors again."

In the meantime, it's clear that there will be a stronger move toward the adoption of certain networking standards, and that over time it will become apparent which networking features are valued by projector users and which are not. However it all shakes out, there's no denying that projectors will finally be joining the corporate network, bringing the worlds of A/V and IT one giant step closer together. ..

Barco's IQ Pro networkable projectors run Windows XP and include a 1.2MHz processor, a 10GB hard drive, Ethernet connections, and Internet Explorer for access to the Web.

NEC has introduced a series of projectors with the ability to exchange data over networks in real time.

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World.