CineEurope: NEC Launches $170,000 Laser Projector

NEC may have beaten rival manufacturers in the race to bring to market the first laser illuminated projection system.

The Japanese vendor has begun taking orders for the $170,000 NC1040L, a model of which is being shown this week at CineEurope. The first installations are expected this fall at undisclosed Japanese car manufacturers.

“We also have considerable interest from cinema exhibitors,” said Gerd Kaiser, NEC's marketing and business development manager for large venue projectors. “It has been demonstrated in private to exhibitors in Paris and other cities in Europe.”

A number of vendors are recommending developing laser-illuminated projection technology to make the screens brighter. Proponents say laser light offers additional advantages, including lower operating costs, reduced power consumption compared to the xenon lamps currently in use, and increased system lifespans. Still, regulatory issues remain for the technology because the FDA monitors the use of lasers.

According to NEC, its new laser-illuminated DLP unit is 4K ready, 48 and 62 fps capable and boasts a color space that exceeds the DCI specification. Its light source supposedly last up to 20,000 hours before needing to be replaced. It outputs 5,000 lumens of brightness to screens up to 31 feet across, meaning that the projector would be used for smaller auditoriums, and would not be bright enough to be subject to regulation.

“The model is scalable so that we are able to double the brightness to 10,000 lumens [with a dual laser source] and then offer 30,000 and 60,000 lumen upgrades provided [FDA and EU] regulations are relaxed,” explained Kaiser.

By contrast Christie, which has has already been demonstrating its developing laser projector, has yet to finalize a release date or pricing for its system, which it has not brought to Barcelona.

It recently completed 100 screenings of G.I Joe: Retaliation on a 65-foot screen at AMC Theatres' Burbank 16 ETX theater using a 72,000-lumen laser projector running at 14 foot-lamberts in 3D. Christie's laser-illumination technology is also scalable from 10,000 to 70,000-plus lumens.

Don Shaw, Christie’s senior director of product management, said he expected first installations of the system early next year.

“We expect no more than 100 installs by the end of 2014,” he said. “Laser projection will be considerably more expensive than xenon-lamp projectors and therefore will be adopted first at premium, high-grossing sites which already offer 4K or high-specification audio or giant-format experiences.”

NEC and Christie both said that without a Virtual Print Fee to subsidize the cost of purchase or lease, exhibitors might consider branding screens outfitted with the technology as "projected by laser."

“Laser is a cool term that audiences immediately identify with provided it can deliver them a new experience,” said Shaw.

Added Kaiser, “Laser could be marketed at a premium just like 4K."

Fellow digital-projector vendor Sony predicts that laser projection is at least three years away from wide adoption in theaters.

“This technology is still at a very early stage,” said Olivier Pasch, Sony's head of European digital cinema sales. “Laser will not be the perfect light source any time soon because of its cost, so it is only likely to be adopted in the very biggest auditoria.”

Pasch predicts wider rollout of lasers in three to four years, provided cost-efficient green-laser-light devices can be developed.