CinemaCon: Barco to Unveil High Contrast Laser Projection System (Exclusive)

Barco Flagship laser projection system - S 2016
Courtesy of Barco

Barco will unveil an upgrade to its flagship laser series of projectors at CinemaCon, the exhibitors convention which kicks off April 11 in Las Vegas. The new option is designed to increase the contrast of the projected image. The manufacturer will also lay out its strategy to bring the cost of laser projection down to a price range that is similar to today's xenon projectors.  

According to Barco, the new option offers a contrast ratio of 6000:1, double the contrast of its high-brightness version of its top-of-the-line system. It almost quadruples the contrast offered by 4K lamp projectors while still reaching brightness levels up to 40k lumens.

While promising an advance in picture quality, the new system also positions Barco for a move toward the adoption of high dynamic range, which offers a wider range between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks. "High dynamic range is a combination of features including contrast," said Barco Escape CEO Todd Hoddick. "The big push will be contrast. It's the most noticeable and impactful component of HDR."

Since laser-illuminated projectors promise brighter screens, they are of particular interest to exhibitors showing 3D films, since moviegoers often complain that 3D movies are too dark. But to date, the cost of laser projection has been seen as a barrier to its adoption, since the first such cinema projectors, which first began rolling out around 2013, listed in the mid-six figures. At last year's CinemaConHoddick predicted that by this year, the projectors would be available at a cost that is competitive with what exhibitors currently pay for digital cinema projectors with a Xenon lamp.

At the high end of Barco's line of laser projectors, which it will be showing exhibitors at CinemaCon, is its flagship laser series — its high-end systems for large auditoriums — which list in the $150,000-$300,000 range, with or without the new option. But Barco will also be showing off its more competitively priced laser phosphor series, which is aimed at midsize auditoriums and which Hoddick said is now competitive with Xenon projectors, which are in the $30,000-$60,000 range. (Additions to the line, aimed as smaller auditoriums, are expected to become available in 2017.)

Barco reported that it has already installed 100 projectors from the flagship line, worldwide, and expects to install an additional 100 by year’s end. It has also installed about 100 systems from the laser phosphor line (starting in China), and the company forecasts that it could install thousands more such projectors by year’s end.

Hollywood will be watching to gauge exhibitors' interest in laser projection, even as filmmakers offer up new challenges for the nation's theater owners.

Later this year, Sony will release Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. The film is being made in 4K, 3D and at a high frame rate of 120 frames per second, per eye — unprecedented for a studio release. Currently, there are no installed theater projectors that can accommodate that format. (Current movies are generally projected at 24 fps, while Peter Jackson's The Hobbit was shown at 48 fps.)

Sony has yet to announce its release plans for Billy Lynn, but there is some speculation the studio could show the film in theaters capable of handling 60 fps. According to Barco vp cinema Stijn Henderickx, any of Barco's flagship, laser phosphor or xenon projectors with Barco's Alchemy media processor are capable of showing a film up to 120 fps in 2k — or in 3D at 60 fps per eye, which totals 120 frames. And they are also capable of handling 60 fps in 4k — or in 3D at 30 fps per eye, which totals 60 frames.

At CinemaCon, Barco will also be demonstrating such other products as its Cinerama-like Barco Escape tri-screen system; its immersive sound system Auro; and its lobby installations.