There's been a trend in the last few years toward new projectors being launched, or pre-launched if you prefer, on the popular crowdfund sites Indiegogo and Kickstarter. No doubt these sites serve an important function in the tech industry, primarily to help underfunded start-ups or creatives raise capital and bring innovative new products or content to market. Increasingly, however, they are being used by well-capitalized projector brands simply to tease a new model, generate interest and demand via social media, and put a bunch of bucks in the bank...well before committing to and shipping a final product.

There is danger in this that I'll get into in a moment, but if you're wondering how we got here, you can probably point first at VAVA. VAVA is the top-tier brand of Sunvalleytek International, the China-based marketer that also sells RAVPower chargers and power banks and the TaoTronics family of personal audio products and countertop appliances. Though hardly a tech giant, they are not a tiny startup; per their website they have offices in China, Japan, Germany, and two in the United States in San Jose and Los Angeles. They were founded in 2007 and purchased in 2018 by Guangdong SACA Precision, a manufacturer of kitchen and furniture hardware, for about $230 million U.S. in cash and stock.

My point here is that when they launched their crowdfunding campaign for the VAVA 4K UST projector in 2019, as an essentially unknown dash-cam brand, they weren't exactly hurting for money. But they found a willing audience on Indiegogo that latched on to their promotion of what was then one of the first UST living room projectors targeted at the U.S. mass market and the harbinger of a emerging industry. Sunvalleytek proved good marketers—better sellers than projector makers, really (more on this in a minute, too). The results were hard to argue. According to the VAVA 4K's retired Indiegogo page they took in just under $3.4 million before finally making the product available broadly via their own e-commerce platform and Amazon. Similarly, their step-up model, the tri-laser VAVA Chroma, was heavily discounted on Indiegogo through mutiple rounds over many months before eventually coming to market in early 2022. With its higher ticket price, the total Indiegogo take was upwards of $6.5 million.

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Crowdfunded projectors are like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get. (Photo credit: Adrien Olichon/Pexels)

You can applaud the enterprise and to some extent the products themselves. Both VAVA models are substantial, solidly-built projectors with excellent quality components, including respected ALPD-branded laser light engines from Appotronics and outstanding Harman Kardon-designed sound systems that rank among the best you'll hear on a UST projector. From a specs-and-features perspective, they make a great story on paper—or web page, as it were.

The problem for consumers, and this is a very real hazard for any projector pre-sold before it ships, is that a projector's performance and user experience are as heavily reliant (if not more so) on the firmware as on the hardware. When VAVA finally made the original VAVA 4K available to the full market and I updated firmware on our sample to conduct a thorough review for ProjectorCentral, I was disappointed. The projector had the bones to create good pictures, but its best out-of-box image quality was well outside what I'd call accurate or natural, and it lacked the adjustments we regularly find on home theater projectors to fully calibrate and correct the color. Furthermore, its operating system was a mess, with confusing, quirky multiple menus and a lack of picture memories that would allow you, for example, to customize separate picture modes for your daylight and dark-room viewing. These were, I posited in the review, rookie mistakes. You can read all the details in our review. It also later turned out, as reported in February 2022, that Sunvalleytek had exaggerated the projector's lumen count—a not uncommon offense in our industry, unfortunately—which resulted in their having to face legal action and eventually respec the unit from 2,500 to 1,800 lumens and adjust their marketing.

Manufacturers can and do attempt to mitigate consumer uncertainty around a crowdfund projector by flooding the social media landscape with pre-production reviews. The invariably positive videos and pull-quotes that result, sometimes from "influencers" with no greater qualifications to review a projector than their ability to receive a free sample, then get embedded in the crowdfund page, spawning even more preorders. Not infrequently, the reviewer stands to gain financially for agreeing to participate in this feeding frenzy, either by affiliate referral links or other consideration.

Of course, the problem with this approach is that the reviewer or tech publisher is agreeing, on whatever motivation, to review or "sneak peek" an unfinished product—one whose image quality, at least, is bound to change, perhaps multiple times, before the projector reaches market. For an outfit like ProjectorCentral that takes its reviewing responsibility seriously, the idea of spending hours evaluating and then publicizing a review that we can't count on being at least reasonably accurate when the product is released is antithetical to our editorial principles. This is why we have a policy of generally not reviewing crowdfund projectors, or even publicizing them, until after their official release and availability to the broader market. We see our role as one of finding the best projectors in any given product class and reviewing them honestly, fairly, and thoroughly for our consumer and commercial audiences. And we are most certainly not here to be the beta tester or marketing department for a well-funded manufacturer who wants to pre-sell an unfinished product rather than just releasing it when it's ready.

VAVA's demonstrated success in turning Indiegogo into an effective social media marketing platform beyond just a fundraising vehicle has since resulted in a number of manufacturers, both established and new, using these sites to pre-sell their essentially finished but not-yet-released projectors at heavy discount. At some level, I can see how this might actually be good for consumers—if you're going to get a quality projector at a bargain price from an established brand with a solid track record, what could go wrong?

But even the biggest brands don't always get it right out of the gate, and until there's a reliable review of a final product you won't know for certain what you're getting. As an example, Anker, one of the largest projector manufacturers in the world, launched its Nebula Cosmos Laser 4K with a 45-day campaign on Kickstarter that ended in February 2022 and grossed about $3.3 million. When we reviewed the final released projector in May of that year, we found mediocre image quality that skewed blue in all picture modes, with no controls to calibrate the color. We also found that it was considerably less bright than the claimed 2,400 ISO lumens (a near-ANSI equivalent), measuring a max of 1,702 ANSI lumens. As with VAVA, this also eventually resulted in Anker facing legal action and having to revise the projector's spec downward to 1,840 ANSI lumens.

The idea of buying a projector sight unseen that is officially listed as still in development, based on a promotional web page or the opinion of an incompetent or irresponsible reviewer who may be gaining financially by their participation, strikes me as foolish and crazy. But people do it all the time, in some cases spending upwards of $2,000. I gather it's because they've drank the crowdfund Kool-Aid and simply cannot resist a deal. If that's you, all I can do is wish you good luck. Perhaps you'll make out well and get a high-performing projector with an accurate picture at a serious discount. Or maybe you'll be one of those folks who can be happy with blue-tinted whites, oversaturated and glowing skintones, or poor contrast, either because you don't know any better or just don't care—because, hey, it's good enough, and you got it for half off. We all set our own quality standards and risk tolerance, after all. Just be smart and understand what you're doing when you hit that Pledge button.

Comments (9) Post a Comment
Dale Posted Mar 24, 2023 9:23 AM PST
Rob, I fully agree with you. Awesome advice on buying a product that's all hyped up before it's even been manufactured and/or before it's even been reviewed.
Paul Posted Mar 24, 2023 9:48 AM PST
This is why I am happy growing old. I'm supposed to pay for a companies start up costs for something that only exists in pixels and take the advice of " influencers"?
Bruce Posted Mar 24, 2023 7:13 PM PST
I appreciate the timing of this article. I've known about crowdfunding for a minute but was never attracted to an offer until recently with the new JMG0 Ultra N1. Talk about looks too good to be true. I got to chat with your colleagues at Projector and thanks to them I put the brakes on a purchase. They pretty much told me the same thing covered in this article. I'm a bit anxious to do an upgrade to a 4k laser and almost got pulled in. I'm still interested but I'm gonna wait until you pros do a rundown on it. Thanks for another great topical article.
Marco Posted Mar 27, 2023 3:07 AM PST
Consumers are turning to other sources for products because the bigger name manufacturers are not giving consumers what they want. I want a new projector, but the better tech is being put in short throw laser projectors. I already have a theater room and it hard to find a 4k, HDR, lens shift, and fast enough for gaming projector at anywhere close to a reasonable price.
Mike Posted Mar 28, 2023 8:22 AM PST
Sounds like an Epson campaign. RGB laser projectors are being produced in the sub $2000 category from overseas companies. While Sony, JVC, Epson and others are charging a high premium for aging (10 plus years plus) single blue laser tech in their laser projectors. I welcome any form of innovation and competition.
Rob Sabin, Editor Posted Mar 28, 2023 8:39 AM PST
Thanks for the comment, Mike. The point's well taken, and I am also excited by the latest generation of RGB lasers coming to market at very reasonable prices. I would add, however, that before we all celebrate, we need to be aware that good engineering is required to avoid or minimize laser speckle with discrete RGB laser projectors, so not every solution will be viable regardless of cost.

That said, I didn't mean for anything in this article to convey that I wasn't in favor of new tech coming from new vendors/brands at lower cost, so I think it's wrong to cite this as pro-Epson/JVC,Sony or anyone else, other than to acknowledge that Epson has stepped up to play the role of Lumen Police in our Wild West industry and those efforts were referenced in the piece to prove my main point: if you buy a crowdfund projector, you are taking a very genuine risk regarding the image quality of the product regardless of the specifications or design on paper. Those new products in most cases would still come to market without a round of advance crowdfunding to pad the pockets of otherwise well-financed manufacturers.
Carl Thompson Posted Mar 28, 2023 3:02 PM PST
Hey Rob what is your impression of the Awol 2500 4k laser projector.
Jim Pascale Posted Mar 30, 2023 7:44 PM PST
I thought for sure this article was going to be about AWOL. I have the 3500. Any comments on this ust? thanks.
georg Posted Mar 31, 2023 5:39 PM PST
If your product is gong to be so good why do you need kickstarter, Go to a bank or investor and get a loan and get back to me when it ships. I got burned with the Cinema headset that never shipped. never again. Many of these startups have no manufacturing/engineering experience and get way in over their heads when they discover how difficult it is. then they wind up shipping a POS

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