There’s a long way to go, judging by what’s on offer even with the best of today’s home theater systems, especially when it comes to viewing 3D. But things may be about to change, thanks in part to the efforts of HDI-US, Inc., a Los Gatos, Calif.-based startup which is moving into the production phase of a new TV projection system that purports to overcome the barriers to high-quality viewing on screens measuring 120 inches or more on the diagonal.
“It will support 200- and even 300-inch screens, once they’re available,” says Simon Tidnam, vice president of business development and strategy at HDI. “Watching on a 200-inch display is a completely different experience that requires new technology. HDI’s goal from the beginning was to build a system that offers a very pure experience on super screens.”
As things stand now with commercially available display technologies, there’s a point of diminishing return on screen sizes, where limits on the frame refresh rates, color depth and luminance result in a lowering of the picture quality as screens get bigger. While flat-panel screens measuring 100 inches or more are now technically feasible, the rendering of HD and 3D on such screens doesn’t produce the quality of experience one gets with a 50-inch screen.
Anticipating there’s going to be a growing demand for a home theater experience that can rival or exceed theatrical screen quality, HDI has come up with a liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCoS) laser projection system which HDI founder and CEO Ingemar Jansson claims is vastly superior to currently available high-end projection systems. Built from scratch with patented technology using RGB laser diodes, HDI’s Laser-Driven 2D/3D Switchable Dynamic Video Projectors operate at frame refresh rates of up to 1080 Hz with a color gamut or palette that far exceeds today’s LCD display technologies, including LED LCDs that use light-emitting diodes rather than fluorescent light sources.
“Our projectors offer the fastest 3D, as well as 2D, refresh rate in the world, while also delivering a laser color gamut up to 200 percent of NTSC,” Jansson says. The reference is to the range of colors which are deemed to encompass what the human eye can discern as embodied in the NTSC standard. LCD LED displays have achieved 100 percent NTSC or better.
HDI’s projectors, working in conjunction with HDI’s line of proprietary Laser Silver Screens, are going into pre-production with the goal of having 100 units available for evaluation by potential distributors and other interested parties by February, Jansson says. These initial units, with 100-inch screens, will sell for tens of thousands of dollars each, but the firm anticipates the price will be in the $10,000 range once it moves to volume production.
“We’re building a number of units so people can have easier access to it,” Jansson says. “We are manufacturing it ourselves through a contract manufacturer here in California.”
Reaching the point where manufacturing has begun is a huge accomplishment, given the challenges associated with the type of projection system HDI has built. The system encompasses breakthroughs in several areas, including practical implementation of LCoS technology with a laser light source and getting everything to work at refresh speeds that top anything yet seen in TV production.
HDI’s is by no means the first laser-driven TV display system. That honor went to Mitsubishi at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2008, where the firm introduced a 65-inch TV with an 80 percent color gamut rating. Last year Sony began producing an RGB laser module for digital cinema and TV projections with a 150 percent color gamut rating. There are two or three other sources for RGB (red-green-blue) laser sources that can be used in projection systems, Jansson notes.
But the clarity required to achieve super-screen sizes can’t be done with LCD technology, which is where LCoS comes in. Rather than modulating light as it passes through the liquid crystal , LCoS employs liquid crystals on aluminized reflective surfaces of silicon chips, which results in higher resolution and contrast than can be achieved with LCD technology. Using RGB diodes as the light sources for LCoS has proved to be tricky business for various developers, but HDI appears to have solved the “speckling” issues that have plagued other attempts.
In the HDI projection system two banks of three low-wattage lasers, one for each color, feed light through fiber links to two LCoS imagers, one for each eye. The two images are projected at full 1920 x 1080 resolution simultaneously at a refresh rate of 360 frames per second for each color or a total of 1080 frames per second per stream, creating a passive 3D display that avoids use of shutter glasses.
“To get to these frame rates we had to be very aggressive in how we designed the electronics on a piece of silicon,”Jannson says. “It took us a long time to get there, but that’s what gives you the very smooth renderings of the 3D image.” The technology eliminates the migraines, dizziness and nausea long associated with substandard 3D display technology, he adds.
Another major improvement has to do with luminance or screen brightness, often measured in foot lamberts, which represent the intensity of light emitted per square foot of screen surface. The darker the viewing environment, of course, the less importance brightness is. Thus, the recommended light intensity for theatrical screenings as determined by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) is just 16 foot lamberts, although new digital projection systems can illuminate at up to 30 FL.
By comparison traditional CRT TV sets operate in the 25-35 FL range. And the best of today’s large flat-screen TVs in the 50-inch range, the LED LCDs, go all the way to 70+ FL in 2D, or about 35 FL in 3D.
But when it comes to screens measuring 100 inches or greater, getting to those levels of brightness is a huge challenge, which is one reason laser-generated light is so important in efforts to break the 100-inch barrier. In HDI’s case, the company has met the challenge with projection spec’d at 70 FL for 2D and 35 FL for 3D for 120-inch screens. When 200 and 300 inch screens become feasible, the projection system will operate at 35 FL for 2D and 18 FL for 3D, the company says.
Contrast, too, is very high with the HDI projection system. The 120-inch screen contrast is spec’d at 1500:1. LCDs run in the range of 500:1 to 900:1. And power consumption on the HDI system is far lower than LCDs, with out-of-the-wall wattage on the HDI system pegged at 350 Watts versus 700 Watts for a 70-inch LCD and 920 Watts for a 70-inch plasma TV, according to HDI documents.
The initial HDI production models are front projection systems, but the firm has developed a side projection technique that allows the system to be contained in a single unit eight inches deep that can be wall mounted, Jansson says. “This will be more in the way of how people think about TV,” he notes. “It will be available next year.”
Early pre-production demonstrations of the technology created a stir two years ago, drawing ABC News coverage and praise from many quarters. Intel CTO Justin Rattner brought HDI officials to the firm’s Developers Conference for a demonstration during his keynote speech in 2009, suggesting the technology could be the solution to the limitations afflicting very large screen home TVs.
Others offering praise for the technology at the time included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was widely quoted characterizing the HDI system as “without a doubt, the best demonstration of 3D technology I have ever seen,” and Sean Portnoy of ZDNet.com, who wrote, “We could be looking at a Holy Grail of sorts for the next generation of television.”
But even as HDI moves to limited production of its first manufactured sets the firm has a long way to go before its products can make it to commercial outlets. One key issue, of course, is the chicken-and-egg problem of finding a manufacturer, which requires generating high-volume demand from retailers in the range of ten thousand units or more that will be necessary to get to the magic $10,000 price point. Without a manufacturing schedule and firm price points, it’s hard to get retailers to commit to such demand.
“We’re just babes in the woods right now,” Jansson remarks, in reference to the commercialization phase of the company’s product development. “In the next few months we have to figure out and find partners to take this to market and so forth.”
Another step underway has to do with working with content owners and distributors to provide movies and TV programs at quality levels suited to the HDI display capabilities. Right now the MPEG-2 or -4 compressed content offered over networks falls well short of that mark, Jansson says.
“We’re in discussions with a number of people about alternatives when it comes to distributing content,” he says. “We’d like to have access to content higher up the food chain where we could take everything from the post-production house and encode it to our system’s requirements.”
While the home theater market is HDI’s main focus right now, the company is looking at other outlets for its technology, including theatrical projection systems. “Today’s theatrical viewing experience is not as good as what we’re producing,” Jansson says, noting the HDI system can be easily expanded to support theater-sized screen projections.
“We can do any screen size; it’s just laser power,” he notes. “Each [HDI projection] box covers up to 200 inches. It’s a stackable design, so we can go all the way to Imax sizes.” However, he adds, laser projection is a new domain for the theater technicians. “Only a handful of people have licenses to work with this type of equipment. Projection guys will have to look at lasers eventually, and we know they are. But it’s a steep learning curve.”
Picture brightness in theaters, especially with 3D, is an issue, HDI’s Simon Tidnam observers, citing recent comments to that effect from motion picture experts. “With our system brightness is absolutely no object,” he says. “The color pallet of the laser system is just dazzling, really a visual delight. When you watch Avatar, you feel like you’re in the landscape.”