by Peter H. Putman
INFOCOMM '99 is over, and what a show. I'm hard-pressed to remember so many new product launches in a single venue! As disappointing as NAB '99 was for product and manufacturer news, INFOCOMM more than made up for it. From ultraportables to plasma; DTV to light valves, and DLP to LCDs, INFOCOMM had something for everyone....from the Projection Shoot-Out (a complete analysis will appear on this web site in late July) to Projector Encounter, there was no shortage of exhibits in which you could stand and watch high-quality video and computer images.
Although I didn't get to visit each and every booth (there were, after all, over 400 of 'em), I was able to meet with numerous manufacturers to talk about new products, upcoming goodies and the industry in general. In between booth visits, private meetings and 5 hours in the Shoot-Out, I also managed to conduct two seminars on plasma displays and digital television, as well as participate in the Presentation Displays panel on Thursday afternoon.
Without further ado, some news and observations culled from my numerous walks about the trade show floor:
ULTRAPORTABLES: The biggest news was, of course, Sharp Electronics entering the sub-6 lb category with their Notevision 7, a single-DMD (yep, DMD!) XGA carry-along for video and data. Sharp? DLP? Somehow those two words don't seem to belong in the same sentence, but as I was told, "DMDs are the way to go to be competitive in the 'featherweight' projector category" - so far. Sharp was joined by Panasonic with their PT-D7, another single-DMD XGA box. Incidentally, both the NV7 and PT-D7 derive from the PLUS chassis (also offered by NEC), but I understand Sharp has made major improvements to the video quality.
In Focus had plenty of LP330 Dragonflys around, but I'm not sure of their availability just yet. Proxima has the LX-1 and will likely come up with a new featherweight closer in size to the PLUS and its many clones. Sony seems to like the "upright" projector design, introducing the VP-PX1 XGA LCD ultraportable projector. NEC displayed the latest iteration of DLP technology with new 5-pound ultras (LT-84 and LT-140), and even ViewSonic is getting into the ultraportable game (with DMDs), and showing the PJL830 and PJL1030 SVGA and XGA boxes, respectively. And of course, Epson now has "hotter" versions of its ultras - the PowerLite 5550C and 7550C, which crank along at 850 and 900 lumens, respectively.
Significantly, Compaq made a suite appearance at the show to reveal their CTX-built single-DMD projector. It's a unique, vertical design that has a snap-on video input and no zoom lens. With the snap-on video adapter (composite and SVHS), the size of the projector doesn't really change at all, so why not just leave it on? Also, the lack of a zoom lens is a drawback in my opinion - even the Sony VPL-SC60 has a 1.3:1 zoom. According to the folks at Compaq, their research indicated that the vertical design was preferred and the zoom lens wasn't necessary. (I think someone was pulling their leg!)
In the "Back From The Dead" department, Davis - whom many of us had given up for gone - made its first major trade show appearance since last year's INFOCOMM, and with an entirely new crew. Apparently, there was a top-down purge of the company after its recent sale, and a whole new organization is in place. Gone is the 60" DLP monitor (a dog, in my opinion) and in its place are two new portables based on the DL450 chassis - the DLS8 (SVGA) and DLX10 (XGA). Chatani in NYC will be the U.S. distributor, and there's even a "baby" in the wings - the DPX16, another 5-pound flyweight projector (Coming to a showroom near you soon! Check newspapers...)
Who doesn't have a DMD-engined ultraportable yet? Hitachi, for one. But I expect that'll change since their inking of an agreement with TI to build an HDTV projection TV with DMDs. Epson is still standing on the wings, as is Sony - will we see DMD-engined "ultras" from either of the principal manufacturers of polysilicon LCDs? (Remember, Sharp only makes amorphous LCDs - not polysilicon, which they buy from Sony and use in the Notevision series.) Mitsubishi might be another viable candidate, given their recent deal with TI to manufacture all-digital consumer HD sets.
DESKTOP PROJECTORS: 1000 lumens used to be the barrier in this category, but we blew by it so fast that 2000 lumens is the new benchmark. Yep, we're starting to get what used to be 'light-valve' brightness from desktop machines, most of which now support XGA resolution. Toshiba had some models based on their TLP-711 chassis, plus some new designs (400-series and 500-series). Hitachi rolled out seven new desktop projectors, including the 1800-lumen CPX960W and 1700-lumen CPX955W. Sony had a yet-unnamed desktop cranking out about 2000 lumens, while Sharp - having caught everyone off-guard with their DMD projector - also unveiled the Notevision 6, a traditional LCD design boasting 2200 lumens.
NEC now has souped-up versions of their MT830, 1030 and 1035 series (identified by the '+' sign at the end). While these "plus" projectors look the same as older models, their brightness and contrast has been improved. Sanyo also has the PLC-SP10N and PLC-XP10NA desktops, also equipped with plenty of horsepower. (Look for Proxima to sell 'em as well.) Panasonic took the opportunity to announce a handful of desktop models - the PT-L597/797 series, in the 18 to 20 pound range and 1700 - 2200 lumens, and the PT-L757/557 portables, which tip the scales around 14 pounds and produce 1500 lumens.
Mitsubishi showed the LVP-X120 and LVP-S120 XGA and SVGA ultraportables, boxes which are over 10 pounds (but not much) and develop in the neighborhood of 700 - 800 lumens. CTX Opto brought along the SVGA EP-610 desktop, while Elmo had the EDP-3100, another SVGA desk-topper. Epson made massive upgrades across their entire line, resulting in higher-brightness versions of the PowerLite 5350 (SVGA) and 7250/7350 (XGA). Light output is in the 1300 to 1500 lumens range. Oh - and yes, 3M has also jumped on the DLP bandwagon with the MP8750 XGA desktop projector.
Yes, there were others. Too many, if you ask me! But these are a representative sampling of the trends on the show floor. Now, if you have a "large" desktop - say, 14 pounds and over - you'd better be cranking out close to 2K lumens, or have a good explanation! 10 to 14 pound desktop boxes are still working around 800 to 1200 lumens. Now, here's a good question - why hasn't anyone tried to marry color wheel technology to a single .9" or 1.3" LCD panel? In theory, it should work fine, although the resulting projector wouldn't be as small as the DLP "wonder boxes", due to the transmissive light path. Why not harness a reflective LCD chip - like JVC's D-ILA - to a color wheel? Now, that'd be cool...a sub-8 pound, SXGA ultraportable with true 4:3 sizing. Should work just as well as a DMD light engine, right?
INSTALLATION AND LARGE VENUE: As quickly as the installation projectors close the gap on the large venue guys, the gap is widened by quantum improvements in light valve brightness. But now, there's another issue - size. NEC finally lifted the curtain on their pride and joy, the sub-100 pound, 4500 ANSI lumen, XGA 3-DMD (yep, 3-DMD!!)-engined T5 installation/large venue projector. (That "clank" sound you heard was all the other large venue manufacturer's jaws hitting the floor.) Incorporating the TI "Thunder" engine, this product was one of the most significant launches at the show. (Remember when 4500 lumens meant 250+ pounds?)
And there will be others - count on it. The 3-DMD installation market is wide open, and I expect to see at least two more products aimed at this market ($50,000 or so, 60 - 90 pounds, 3000 - 5000 lumens, XGA and even SXGA with boardroom connectivity) released before year's end. All the other significant DLP announcements came with 5 figures attached to them (not the price, the lumens ratings!). Digital Projection introduced the POWER 6sx; a 5500 lumen, SXGA light valve with compatibility to 1600x1200 and 1080 HDTV. Two new 'Lightning' series engines incorporating bubble Xenon lamps produce 10,000 lumens (Lightning 10 sx) and 12,000 lumens (Lightning 15 sx). They, too, use SXGA DMDs and will handle anything from video to UXGA and HDTV.
Barco followed up hard on the heels of its NAB announcements with the ELM G10 and R12 series light vales. They're rated at 10,000 and 12,000 lumens, sporting XGA (G10) and SXGA (R12) DMDs. Electrohome also entered the horsepower wars with the VistaULTRA 12K Roadie, yet another 1280x1024 DMD-equipped light valve rated at (what else?) 12,000 lumens. A slightly dimmer (10,000 lumens) 10K Roadie was also seen in the Shoot-Out, projecting HDTV with excellent results. Panasonic caught everyone by surprise with the PT-9500U 3-DMD light valve, claimed to produce in excess of 9,000 lumens. (It looked pretty darn good in the Shoot-Out!)
Hughes-JVC showed the latest single-lens ILA projector, the Model 250SC, featuring a variety of video and film clips. Upstairs at the Orlando Convention Center "Bijou", a sneak preview screening of Miramax' "The Ideal Husband" stole a mark on Lucas' digital premiere of "Star Wars". The projector was the well-known ILA-12K cinema-grade display. Hughes also had a rather quiet demo of what I believe to be their REAL future in digital cinema - a 4000 lumen installation/light valve projector using D-ILAs. It looked beautiful, by the way.
In the LCD market, Sony upgraded their VPL-X2000 to SXGA resolution, changing the name to the VPL-FE100 along the way. Specifications call for over 3000 ANSI lumens (see, that gap is closing again!) and sync compatibility goes to nearly 100 KHz. Sanyo's PLC-EF10N hasn't even been shipping yet, but has already been replaced by a brighter version, the NA - look for it to be available in the fourth quarter of 1999. (I remember writing a column for Video Systems some years back about a hypothetical manufacturer discontinuing a product before it was even launched. Life imitates art?) Proxima will have this new box as well. Barco also introduced their version of the FE-100 engine as the BarcoReality 6300DLC, and it looked pretty darned good.
Epson finally jumped into the installation projector market with the PowerLite 8000i (1024x768) and PowerLite 9000i (1280x1024), rated at between 1600 and 2000 lumens (those numbers will go up; count on it) and full boardroom-style connections. APTi has souped-up their desktop/installation reflective LCD projector, resulting in the AP-2000SX. It's a 1600 lumen 1280x1024 machine with mechanical lens shift and HDTV compatibility. And Lasergraphics jumped into the fray with their new "Quad XGA" projector - it allegedly features 2048 x 1536 pixel resolution and looked quite sharp, but I understand it's really 1024x768 with a clever alternating-field sequencing system.
The writing's on the wall - you can get under 100 pounds and deliver a bright, contrasty image. How long before we see 600+ lumens from a chassis like the T5? Maybe only a few months. The big bruiser boxes will need to pump out 8000 lumens and more to justify their size and cost - but you can already stack a pair of T5s and get over 8000 ANSI. for less than $100,000 (if the pricing holds; possibly even lower than that).
Other light valve questions: When will Sony come out with an XGA or more likely an SXGA box like the T5? How about Electrohome and Barco? Can AmPro stay in business long enough to carve out a niche in this expanding market? Most importantly, has Hughes-JVC finally realized that their high-brightness, large-venue 'future' lies with the D-ILA, which is by far and away the best-looking reflective LCD imaging system available today?
Here's a market that changing almost as fast as the projector segment. All the majors introduced new panels at INFOCOMM; Fujitsu showed its latest series glass in the PDS-4211 (also used in the Sony PFM-500A2W), while NEC finally got their PlasmaSync 5000W 50" PDP on the road. NEC's latest PlasmaSync 4210 has much improved brightness and contrast over earlier models. Panasonic is finally shipping the PT-42P1 42" panel (852x480 - what else?) and it is noticeably brighter than any other 42" models, except it doesn't have the contrast of the NEC and Sony/Fujitsu glass. (I proved this with a Philips PM5639 Analyzer during my Plasma Technology seminar on Wednesday morning.)
Toshiba is also selling the Panasonic (read: Matsushita) 42" panel as the PD42W1U, and of course it's every bit as bright as the PT-42P1. For higher-resolution, both Fujitsu and Sony displayed their new 1024x1024 non-square pixel XGA plasma. (Now, there's a REAL video scaling challenge!) Pioneer, who blazed the 50" trail with the PDP-V501, now has the second-generation V502 and there is a huge improvement in image contrast and color quality in this version. But the real head-turner was Panasonic's prototype 60" 1366 x 768 PDP, and would you believe it was built right here in the U.S.A.? Yep, Plasmaco (a subsidiary of Matsushita for several years now) put this beauty together, and it has the latest in AC Plasma technology - excellent contrast, good color saturation, and plenty of brightness.
A few years ago, I predicted that video scalars would soon take over the line doubler/line quadrupler market due to the large number of fixed matrix imaging systems now in use. Guess what? That time has come. Of the 11 up-converters entered in the Projection Shoot-Out, seven were digital scalars. Look for that number to become even more lopsided next year as more display companies come out with bizarre pixel resolutions (1024x1024 non-square, for example).
Extron finally got on the scalar bandwagon with two models - the DVS 100 for video, and DVS 200 for RGB-to-RGB scaling. Communications Specialties souped up the Deuce to the Deuce Pro, adding a few new pixel rates (like 50" 1365 x 768 and 1280 x 768) and there even a few pixel memories you can write yourself. RGB Spectrum brought along the VLI 200 high-end scalar, but also jumped into the 'economy' market with the DTQ (doubler, tripler, quadrupler).
Analog Way made more improvements to their revolutionary mult-input RGB Graphics Scalar/Switcher, a step Folsom Research also took by combining their VFC-2200 scalar with an external RGB preview/on-line switcher designed by Vista. Faroudja followed on the heels of their DTV-2200 by rolling out two more scalars - the DVP3000 and DVP3000U (PAL). They can up-convert video to anything from VGA to HDTV.
What lies ahead? Well, for starters I'd like to see manufacturers of plasma panels and installation/large-venue projectors incorporate more plug-in areas for third-party video scalars, a technique that Digital Projection is already pursuing with Faroudja. Why not put all that digital expertise to work, instead of saying "we didn't invent it in Japan, so we won't use it." nView and Snell & Wilcox tried this last year, but went nowhere. It was a good idea - just the wrong mix of companies.
ODDS AND ENDS
Overall, I thought the show was well worth the trip. There have been some comments that attendance was down this year. Perhaps that was due to the incredibly spread-out nature of the show, which resulted in a nearly ten-minute walk to get from one end of the hall (near Projector Encounter) to the Projection Shoot-Out entrance. Only ICIA knows for sure how many people came through the gates!
Based on the seminars, attendance appeared to be up. I had well over 100 at my Wednesday plasma talk, and a good crowd of nearly 50 on Saturday for DTV (that's the graveyard shift!). The lines were always long for food, and there was usually a pretty good crowd in the Shoot-Out during the three times I went in (Thursday afternoon, Friday morning and Saturday at lunch time).
Because the show has gotten so spread-out and the number of booths continues to rise, INFOCOMM in my opinion needs another full day, if not a half-day, to do it justice. I know some manufacturers think three days is plenty, but a surprising number of people I talked agree that a fourth day was not only necessary, it was probably inevitable. There's just too much stuff to see!
ICIA's opening event with Dick Clark pre-empted many of the traditional Thursday AM press conferences that Sony, Extron, and In Focus have held in the past. Perhaps we should move the grand opening ceremonies to Wednesday morning, and allow 9 AM to noon for this event and other press briefings? Or, do we add a half-day Wednesday afternoon or Sunday? How about 9 AM to 6 PM all three days? Your comments are solicited - send 'em to firstname.lastname@example.org
What did you think of Projector Encounter? This new event provided an opportunity for attendees to get a "crash course" in display technology and see some new products along the way. Some attendees told me they thought the content was too basic, while others thought it was just right. A lot of hard work by Kayye Consulting and Interactive Personalities went into this exhibit and things were being tweaked right up until the show's opening on Thursday.
Isn't it amazing how fast DLP projection engines have taken over the videowall market? Everybody but Pioneer now has a DLP-engined cube at either SVGA or XGA resolution. I have never seen any AV product come in like a tidal wave before the DMD cubes appeared. What do you think high-brightness plasma will do to the projection cube market? It's only a matter of time before companies like Pioneer figure out a way to mount plasma panels together with thin mullions in a wall configuration. Imagine - a 2x2 wall with 1280 x 960 resolution, 40" panels, and less than 6" of footprint.
Is the writing on the wall for CRT projectors? Only a handful of booths even showed them - Barco had none in their main booth, while Sony had three and NEC only one. Electrohome left the tubes home entirely, concentrating on DLP and their new desktop LCD projector (from Fujitsu). Zenith seemed more concerned with showing monitors, and Panasonic's MT-1085 was nowhere to be seen.
From what I hear, CRT projectors are still strong players in home theater and simulators, particularly in the Northeast. Anyone who saw the VPH-G90U holding its own in the 1280x1024/1600x1200 and HDTV Shoot-Out categories would have to agree. Maybe they didn't produce the brightest images, but they sure looked great. I think the ol' tubes still have some life left in 'em, thanks to HDTV and the 1920x1080i picture standard. Why? There is NO display device that can capture and show all of the resolution in such an image, short of a 9" CRT tube! (And even they are huffin' and puffin' with that much detail!)
Phew! That's all for now. Thanks for hangin' in there, and I hope to see you at an upcoming show.