The evolution of projectors

The fascinating history of projectors began almost 600 years ago – we reflect on the machine’s timeline in this new age of laser over lamp

Many dealers have been involved with projectors in one way or another over the years, and the sector has seen a great deal of change. Even over the past 20 years, the education market, for example, has moved from simple, opaque models to more complex machinery attached to classroom ceilings, with those same machines commonplace in board rooms across the world. Some don’t even require remote control any more; there are smart versions connected by wifi, meaning any device can control where and what the machine projects.

A new, major wave of change is happening once more. When Dealer Support attended Midwich’s Technology Showcase representatives from Epson spoke to us about how lamp projectors are beginning to die out in favour of laser.

A brief history of projectors

But let’s rewind for a minute and examine just how much projectors have evolved up until now. Did you know that the very first known image of a projector is dated at 1420? A drawing by Johannes de Fontana shows a sketch of a monk holding a lantern, inside which an image of the devil is projected onto the wall by the flame via a translucent window in the lantern.

This, according to Gareth Marples, who has written extensively on this subject in The History of Projectors – The Battle for Brightness for Historic Camera, inspired a whole host of European inventors to create a working projector with a lens. Gareth says that, depending on who you ask, it may have been invented any time between 1515, by Pierre Fournier, and 1674, by Claude Millet.

Regardless of which is true, Athansius Kircher did describe and draw out a device for ‘reflecting sunlight from a mirror, through a lens and onto a screen’ in 1645, says Gareth. He called it a ‘magic lantern’, something that was finally created by Christiaan Huygens in 1659. Of course, these were extremely crude versions of what we would call projectors now, but the principle was there.

‘Limelight’ – an incandescent calcium oxide light – was introduced in theatres by 1837 and remained the standard kind of light for projection until electric lighting systems were introduced in the late 1800s. Fast forward to the 1950s and the need for compact projectors has greatly increased – meetings were becoming commonplace as the corporate world developed, and businesses were crying out for compact projection systems.

Rapid evolution

This was the decade when opaque projectors and slide projectors came into common use. These were still very simplistic by today’s standards, but they were becoming smaller, easier to use, and cheaper all the time. By halfway through the 1990s, multimedia projectors were finally available, as well as mobile projectors for travelling salespeople and home offices.

From then on, the world of projectors became a battleground, with manufacturers fighting to become the most efficient, the most eco-friendly and the least expensive to run. Today, even though other AV – such as smart screens – is a growing market too, there is still plenty of room for projectors as the market shifts, according to Trevor Maloney, business manager for visual instruments at Epson UK. This is partly due to the move towards laser and away from bulky, expensive lamps. “It is no surprise that laser-based technology is now regenerating interest in projection,” he says.

“Users are beginning to realise the benefits of laser light sources over traditional, ultra-high-performance (UHP) lamps. Lasers, undeniably, last longer than traditional projector lamps, offer a more constant brightness and provide nearly instant on/off functionality – so there is no longer a need to wait around for a projector to warm up or cool down.

“Similarly, the fast output adjustment also means a huge dynamic contrast ratio potential – which, essentially, means that lasers can be turned off, or down, during dark scenes; this has increased the output quality significantly in comparison to lamp projectors. All this adds to the advantages which projection offers over and above flat panel.”

A bright future

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The increased range of what projectors can be used for, due to advanced technology and increased quality of image, has led to manufacturers finding new markets in festivals (both outdoor and indoor), gigs, theatre performances, shopping centres and beyond. “Alongside the evolution of projectors comes an evolution in consumer expectation of what they can do and how they look,” Trevor continues. “The future for projectors is looking smaller, brighter and higher – smaller in terms of compact projectors, capable of delivering enhanced brightness levels, and higher in terms of resolutions. Customer demand is also driving increasingly easy methods of control and integration, in terms of both software and hardware, for fully immersive displays.

“4K is an area that is growing considerably, and Epson is currently investing more in this technology, with native 4K projectors and lenses. Cameras are now being placed into projectors, to diagnose and troubleshoot problems remotely – which gives customers access to constant off-site support, which was not available previously.”

Dealers in the driving seat

The question is, how can resellers take advantage of the way technology is moving? It can sometimes be daunting when technology changes, after all. “Dealers can take advantage of this shift in technology by concentrating their focus on changing consumer demands,” says Trevor. “Essentially, making projections immersive is key – as is user experience – so this should be made a priority. Dealers should look to provide consumers with a fully-immersive experience that casts a shadow over the previous offerings of lamp projectors.”

It’s also important to focus, not just on the projector, but what is being projected onto – and how to ensure the right projector is paired with the right surface. “When creating a projection, the surface being projected onto – particularly the size and shape – can have a big impact on the output. Not every venue boasts huge blank white walls or control of ambient light levels, but there are ways to work around space restrictions and limitations. Dealers can take advantage of this by offering consumers who struggle to place their AV product in a way that isn’t an eyesore a projector that is flexible and versatile. “

A new age of laser projectors

The new age of laser projectors offers just this kind of versatility, according to Trevor. “Retailers and showrooms may have space restrictions, or just don’t want a projector within customer eyesight, which is where modern laser projectors come into play. Projectors that display moving imagery, art and information, and also offer a great compact solution in situations where traditional projectors or flat-panel displays would not be suitable, should be endorsed by dealers. This may include car or furniture showrooms, art galleries and museums, as well as hotels, bars, restaurants and temporary hospitality spaces that require a versatile projector which can be used for a wide variety of displays.”

As with any other AV, bracketing, screws and other small parts to accompany projectors are a great area for making money; while the newer, more advanced projectors have fewer small parts, such as cables for connecting to computers, they still need to be attached to ceilings and walls. In short, there is always a way to adapt to the introduction of these new machines.

“With so many technological advancements in multimedia projectors, you’d think that, somewhere, there’d have to be a limit,” concludes Gareth. “Well, right now, there’s no end in sight, at least not in the near future.”

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