Since laser video was first proposed in 1996, it has been a tech holy grail, especially for stereoscopic 3D (S3D).
Laser-driven projection TVs, in theory, are supposed to deliver huge size, brilliant color, long life and low power consumption in a cheap, thin box.
Mitsubishi introduced its LaserVue projection set about a year ago, which delivered on some of those promises. Recently, though, Daily Variety got a peek at a laser TV system that represents a leap forward from the Mitsubishi sets in size, speed and 3D capability.
And so, too, did a group of top execs from consumer electronics makers.
Engineers and S3D experts from Sony, Sharp, JVC, Hitachi and even Mitsubishi crowded into a workshop in Los Gatos, Calif., last week to see a prototype 100-inch, rear-projection S3D television from startup HDI. That’s far bigger than Mitsubishi’s 65-inch LaserVue.
The light for HDI sets comes from a trio of small red, green and blue lasers. The red and blue are off-the-shelf parts, but HDI had to develop the green to meet its specs.
As promised, HDI’s design is energy efficient, no small thing with California eyeing power consumption limits for TVs. HDI’s 100-inch prototype draws 190 watts. Today, an Energy Star-qualified 50-inch Panasonic plasma pulls 388 watts. Overall, HDI promises 80% power savings compared to plasma.
It’s also fast. For S3D, at full 1080p HD, the screen refreshes at 360 fields per second on each eye. Today’s state-of-the-art consumer sets are touting the smooth picture they get from speedy 240 hz, but that’s for 2D; they can only do 120 hz per eye for S3D.
Mitsubishi’s laser TVs are only 120 hz for 2D, and while they can be adapted for S3D, they’re not built for it. Mitsubishi’s sets need expensive shutter glasses and an infrared emitter for S3D. HDI uses less expensive polarized glasses similar to RealD’s.
For a projection system, HDI’s approach is compact, too, though not as thin as flatscreens. Their goal is to make their 100-inch diagonal screen fit in a cabinet just 10 inches deep, and to keep that 10:1 ratio at any size.
Last but not least, its sets should be cheap — compared to plasma, anyway. They promise their sets will cost just 40% of the same size plasma; they estimate $10,000-$15,000 for a consumer version of that 100-incher with costs dropping as volume increases. Moreover, they say, a plant to manufacture their system would need just 5% of the investment for a plasma plant, and would be greener to boot.
HDI hopes someone, even Mitsubishi, will buy their tech in hopes of leapfrogging the LaserVue. They say they could be in production in as little as 24 months.
Even if no one bites on HDI’s approach it shows the promise of laser-driven 3D TV could be a reality surprisingly soon.
There’s been plenty of gloom about the state of the visual effects business in California, which lacks tax incentives and has high labor costs. Some vfx companies have looked to diversify, emulating Lucasfilm’s portfolio, which includes feature films, games, animation and vfx.
But George Lucas said his company has been thriving because it resisted the temptation to diversify further.
“That word ‘diversification’ makes Harvard Business School logic but in the real world, we’re better off doing what we know how to do, and protecting what we have,” Lucas said.
Speaking about the contributions of Lucasfilm prexy Mich Chau, who was profiled in Variety’s Women’s Impact Report, Lucas credited her with resisting temptations to get into new businesses in search of quick money.
As a result, he said, “We’re in unbelievably good shape,” and Lucasfilm even benefited from the recession.
By contrast, ILM rival Digital Domain is diversifying, expanding to Vancouver and Florida, ramping up internal project development and eyeing its own animation productions. DD Florida will also pursue military training and simulation projects.
DD’s move into military work doesn’t really point the way to a new revenue stream for showbiz companies, though, according to Eric Haseltine, president, Haseltine Partners and an expert on the intersection of military and entertainment tech.
“Hollywood companies aren’t going to want to do business with the government,” Haseltine said. “It’s such a pain in the ass. All the contracting and the certifications and the accounting standards and EEOC requirements and subcontractor requirements and federal acquisition regulations, it’s a nightmare that only special companies that live and breathe military contracts want to get into. There’s no percentage in it.”