One of the main attractions of the INFOCOMM trade show has always been the famous Projection Shoot-Out(r). In years past, the Shoot-Out has been a valuable tool for comparing the vast array of projectors that are on the market. But this year, it didn't work.
For those who have never seen the Shoot-Out, it is simply this: Scores of projectors are lined up side-by-side in a dark projection hall, each with its own screen. The projectors are simultaneously fed a sequence of data and video signals. Viewers can evaluate the quality of the data and video images produced by each individual product. Viewers can also compare the advantages and weaknesses of competitive products, since projectors of like resolution are staged in groups, and placed in ascending order of their suggested retail prices.
In years past, manufacturers were anxious to get into the Shoot-Out line-up. They were willing to ante up hefty fees to participate since exposure in this venue was a key to building their dealer base and maintaining dealer allegiance. And buyers could make buying decisions based on a product's relative performance. So a manufacturer's presence in the Shoot-Out was an important key to success in the projector industry.
But that was back when there was a significant difference in image quality between projectors of similar price and specification. These days any projector can produce a marketable data image. They all produce much better video than they used to as well. So as far as building a dealer base is concerned, few dealers are going to select new lines based on their performance in the Shoot-Out.
Similarly, consumers and AV buyers might have used the Shoot-Out in years past to do comparison shopping. But today most buying decisions are made based on factors other than image quality-weight, size, ease of use, keystone correction, compression capability, connectivity, networkability, onboard presentation tools, and even color and casework design. None of these buying criteria can be evaluated in the Shoot-Out. Now add in the fact that several of the market's most popular projectors didn't even show up in this year's line-up at all, and the usefulness of the Shoot-Out as a comparison shopping tool is all the more marginalized.
This year's set up ... what was that?
When one entered the Shoot-Out this year, the first thing any veteran attendee noticed was that a few of the overhead lights were on. This created an uneven ambient light condition that had the alarming effect of hosing the contrast ratio on the projectors that were near the lights while leaving others relatively unaffected. Even a little bit of ambient light has a huge impact on the image contrast of a front projection system.
Unfortunately the only reason for the Shoot-Out to exist at all is to allow people to see projectors on a level playing field-same screens, same signals, same lighting. This year the playing field wasn't level due to the lighting problem. Presumably the fire marshal was more concerned with crowd safety than image quality.
Uneven lighting a benefit? Following one of the basic tenets of Sales 101, "if you can't fix it, feature it," the show management's Web site pointed out the benefits of having a few overhead lights on in the Shoot-Out: "Variable Ambient Light -- Designed to allow viewers to appreciate the light-output from projectors." (see www.icia.org, INFOCOMM Information / Special Events / Shoot-Out / Format).
This benefit is questionable. The entire show floor is populated with vendor booths showing bright projectors in the exhibit hall's ambient light conditions. Excess light in the Shoot-Out is not required to make the point that projectors have gotten brighter.
What about durability? Another benefit of the Shoot-Out noted on the organizer's Web site was "Daylong Projection Times - Allows viewers to compare the most durable projectors." This benefit is suspect also. Durability has more to do with being able to survive a long bumpy road trip than being able to endure an "on" state for several hours straight. Projector durability overall is very good in the industry as a whole. Thus it is not one of the hot buying criteria in the market today. And if it were, the Shoot-Out would not be the place to test such a thing.
Video quality--the heart of the matter. If durability is not a key buying factor, video quality most certainly is. Any projector can put a decent pie-chart on the wall. But high quality video is another matter. And the Shoot-Out, in theory, would be a great way to compare the video performance of competing units. But this year the video portion of the signal loop was maddeningly brief, a few seconds of video squeezed into a stream of seemingly endless data test patterns. So for viewers who wanted to do any serious video evaluation of projectors, the process was painfully slow and in practical terms, impossible. The video feed was simply not adequate to the task.
This year's Projection Shoot-Out was a disappointment. Some vendors chose not to participate this year. Others will probably follow suit next year. For the fact is that times have changed. Image quality varies only slightly between most brands, with the notable exception of a few of the home theater products. Thus buying decisions (at least for the commercial and education markets) are made on other issues.
The Projection Shoot-Out may remain a curiosity at future INFOCOMM shows. But its relevance is dwindling. Commercial buyers don't need it to make educated decisions and manufacturers don't need it to promote their lines. This year the Shoot-Out did one thing remarkably well. It demonstrated that technology has advanced to the point where just about every projector can produce a marketable image. But it's an expensive production for such an inconsequential result.