Harmonious visual couplings

With the demand for bigger and bigger display canvasses growing, Rob Lane looks at the relationship between LED and projection technology.

As the demand for large digital canvasses continues to grow across all sectors, so the technology delivering the large-screen goods keeps developing, offering bigger and better options in a variety of flavours. Large format displays and video walls (LCD and LED), laser and 3LCD projection: it’s very often a case of horses for courses, although some technologies suit applications better than others.

Large screen LED signage is certainly a burgeoning industry, with the demand for bigger advertising and infotainment continuing to grow in retail, stadiums and public thoroughfairs. Elsewhere, LED is being increasingly utilised in control rooms and corporations.

Projection, of course, supports bigger images without you needing to build an LED wall, and without the (admittedly always shrinking) bezels or barely visible joins. And whilst natural light is more of a problem, this isn’t an issue for some applications and in some sectors.

“Each technology offers its own unique features which will determine its suitability for the application,” says Thomas Walter, section manager, strategic product marketing, NEC Display Solutions Europe. “Where projection is brilliant with the highest screen size flexibility, easy and flexible installation and crisp detail provision up to 4K UHD resolution, LED provides advantages in high brightness levels and the longest lifetime expectations of all visual technologies.”

Environment guides use

PSCo director Stuart Holmes opines that the specific environment of an installation is the ultimate determinant of which platform should be used.

“LED and laser projection are both leading technologies with an array of benefits that are suited for different applications,” he says. “Although both technologies offer key features including brightness, contrast, flexibility in size of display and mounting solutions, and a seamless canvas, it is dependent on the environment for the right platform to become clear. They also offer some individual benefits that differentiate the products.”

Projection tends to be the most cost-effective way to create large screen solutions, with the arrival of laser eradicating the hassle of frequent bulb exchanges and decreasing light output over time. And of course budget has a big part to play in the decision making process.

“Practical buying advice would be to have a firm idea of what your budget is and the functionality or capability you require from a display,” confirms David Griffiths, director, market development EMEA at Christie.

Direct-view LED has a long history of serving outdoor applications, particularly in stadia and digital signage or outdoor advertising, where direct-view’s large pixel pitch wasn’t an issue and the display was viewed from some considerable distance. Even the brightest projectors could not contend with the high-ambient light conditions of mid-day sun.

“The relatively recent advances in narrow and fine pixel pitch allow this technology to address indoor applications, where a shorter viewing distance is needed. Price has dropped considerably for larger pixel pitch direct-view LED displays, however narrow or fine pixel pitch direct-view still demand a premium,” adds Griffiths, “making them cost prohibitive for many applications that projection serves today.”

Miles Donovan, Christie’s senior channel development manager EMEA, sees projection as being the only scalable display that does not require further investment – subject to lighting conditions: “Even the brightest projectors remain considerably more mobile than a direct-view LED display for those using a display as a shared resource – for example, education.”

Projection delivers high impact, large format images in controlled-light environments, and is a popular solution when high-definition resolutions are needed at flexible sizes or distances. It also offers creative mapping and keystoning, allowing for large curved surfaces, and can be ‘edge-blended’ to create even bigger – even multi-sided – solutions.
However, high-brightness, refresh rates and high contrast make LED best suited in delivering high-impact digital canvases, in any space regardless of the environmental conditions.

“LED offers fantastic reliability and low-failure rates – perfect for high-profile display scenarios such as signage (retail/corporate), advertising and for live-events usage across a multitude of applications,” explains Holmes. “The modular nature of the products, as well as an ability to be used in various orientations, can inspire creative platforms.”

Indeed it is creativity that often leads to the two technologies complementing one another rather than competing, in some sectors and for particular applications. In terms of rental and staging, both technologies are used side by side in concert performances, reflecting the differing nature and creativity afforded by both technologies.

Control rooms

In a control room environment it wouldn’t be unusual to see direct-view LED used for a command wall and projection or flat-panel display in the breakout room at the same facility. Direct-view LED is used rather than a tiled wall of LCD panels due to brightness and maintenance. Direct-view LED would be too costly and viewing distances too short to introduce the same technology in the breakout room.

Epson UK’s business manager, Professional Displays, Charlotte Hone agrees that projection and LED technologies complement one another, but that it depends on the “setting”, arguing that projection advancements are making this less necessary.

“In many environments (visitor attractions, live event spaces), the two are often used together. However, projection offers a far more versatile, and immersive, display. For a company putting on a show for a customer, projection can be used to bring the walls, floors and objects into play, along with many shapes and objects – and thus transform any product being displayed,” says Hone.

Historically, people chose LED to overcome the problems of shadows and ambient light – but new projection advancements, with higher brightness, ultra-short-throw lenses and 3LCD technology, means this is no longer an issue.

Projection has the advantage of being quick to set up, whilst LED tends to be more suited to the types of projects that can afford three or more construction days, due to the ‘brick by brick’ nature of LED panels and also the weight.

“The individual application needs and budget parameters will determine which is the best technology fit so they are not necessarily in direct competition with one another (or there’s growing demand for both technologies),” NEC’s Walter explains. “From our market feedback we see a growing demand for both technologies and share the optimistic market outlook from market researchers like Futuresource.

Both technologies are finally creating large images, but in such a different way, that we see them as complementing more than competing. End customers should always consider all large screen visualisation technologies and decide upon their individual preferences.”

“In fixed installation, as pixel pitches have got narrower, there has been a lot of interest in LED from the control room sector,” explains Denis. “There are some markets where LED and projection really compete, but there are others, such as projection mapping, where LED is clearly not a viable solution.”

The markets for both technologies are reportedly forecast to grow significantly over the next three to five years as the demand for large screen visuals continues, although LED was certainly the most prominent at ISE 2018. New fine pixel pitch offerings make it the equal to LCD in terms of high-resolution performance, whilst its super high brightness and longevity make it a superior quality solution and uniquely suitable for prestige installations.

At the same time, laser projection continues its development, offering further benefits and wider appeal for a variety of applications. As of today, there are three main laser light source technologies in the installation projector market providing different strengths and advantages for different needs.

RB laser, which is the latest one, has a low initial cost compared to RGB laser projectors, yet delivers higher brightness levels and a wider colour space compared to laser phosphor. These advantages will see a greater prevalence of RB laser in the years to come.

Laser projection is now showcasing 25,000 lumens and there are developments in resolution with 4K canvases, opening up the market for projectors in high ambient light environments.

Says Holmes: “With the introduction of high-end laser light source projection technology we are seeing a growth in demand for this platform. With the evolution of laser projection, it means projection can produce a brighter image, over a longer period of time without the need to regularly change lamps.”

Pristine pixel pitches

At the same time, LED panels are extremely light, bright and now boast finer pixel pitches, broadening the technology’s reach.

“As the pixel pitch reduces to sub 2mm, we are now seeing it used in areas such as corporate applications where pristine detail is needed,” says Holmes. “This year we have already seen the launch of sub 1mm LED, and 27in modules, which means it can achieve sizes and standard HD resolutions comparable with LCD which customers are familiar with. We are seeing Narrow Pixel Pitch (NPP) indoor LED (sub 4mm) achieving brightness of up to 5,000 nits, something that historically wasn’t available.”

Ultimately – for the foreseeable future at least – both LED and projection technology appear set to coexist harmoniously, each offering subtlely different solutions across a variety of sectors; sometimes used in concert, most times in isolation. Developments in both technologies are helping to broaden their individual uses, but also to bring LED and projection closer together – so that the areas in which they compete are growing.

“No matter where clients are on the technology adoption curve, there is always a display solution to suit needs and budget, whether interactive panel, projector or large-format display,” says Chris Goff, BenQ UK product manager.

“When an AV buyer is looking to purchase a projector or LED, they need to ask a series of questions based on their requirements. This will include, image size, inputs, resolution and built in features that will cope with the display demands for the lifetime of the asset. Generally, the most important factors for AV buyers is making sure everyone can see the content, without adjusting the room lighting.”

Of course, it’s only on those occasions, where both technologies are required in order to fulfil a project’s end game, that LED and projection truly come together as one – and this is when harmonious coexistence is loved-up into a form of technological coupling.

Adds Hone: “Any integrator needs to create drama for the customer – which can be achieved by layering projection and LED technologies. Thus, these two components need to work together seamlessly.”

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