The Projector’s Slow, Lingering Death

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By Joel Rollins, CTS-R

Crew CallSometimes, there is little difference between the needs of the rental/staging company and the mainstream AV dealer. We use the same equipment (albeit sometimes in different ways) and are driven by the same technological changes in the overall market.

But often, our special circumstances call upon us to deal with a technological change either faster or slower than the “mainstream” of AV. And here’s one of those times.
Over the last two years, I’ve read a lot of commentary from the industry and industry press about the inevitable downfall of the projector, including from Gary and a lot of my other colleagues. And even from me.

Disclaimer: As most of you know, I’m a mostly a video projector guy. For the last 25 years, I have sold them, rented them, installed them, consulted on them and taught about them. I was a vocal voice for (and then a participant in many different roles) of the old Projection Shootout. I named my dog Barco.

Second Disclaimer: I completely agree with the predictions of the demise of the projector – and all the difficulties and waste of useable space that they entail. It’s obvious from the march forward in flat screen and modular panel technologies that for a great portion of the general market the projector’s use will decline.

However, for the rental and staging portion of the industry, even though we have been among the first to adopt alternative display technologies, let me paraphrase Mark Twain to say that the rumors of its immediate death have been somewhat exaggerated.

While there is indeed a massive boom going on in alternative large-screen display technologies, and projectors are becoming a very “mature” market, that’s one of the things that makes projectors still the mainstream display in rental and staging. Because of the maturity of the projector market, an entire industry of necessary support services and products from third parties has sprung up around it for rental, which has not yet happened in the alternative displays area of the market.

In our area of the industry, the investment in the actual display technologies, especially in the staging end of the market, is dwarfed by the costs of support, accessory, and protection equipment. Most of my projector costs look quite small, for instance, compared to the lenses and accessories each must be equipped with in rental.
So, while the new technologies already represent a powerful force in rental, the mature projection market gives us choice after choice of combinations of equipment with which to stage a show – making our entire inventory work together more effectively.

Consider, also, some of the other rental advantages to projection-based systems:

Projectors RULE in one of our biggest areas of concern: portability and ease of transport. Projectors use less trucking space and weight, and are easier to handle (and thus, less expensive) than any of the alternative large screen technologies, much as we love them for some shows. In fact, the larger the screen you’re making, the more the projector becomes the less labor-intensive display. The cost of drayage alone for large flat screen walls, in some instances, could BUY the projector. Our labor costs are almost always higher than our equipment costs, and here’s where we make decisions that affect them.

Plus, shows aren’t done with displays – they’re done with SYSTEMS. And our industry is fully set up with peripheral parts that are BUILT, mainly, for projection systems. Screen warping, blending, effects systems, control systems, lighting controllers – most of our inventory has been designed and optimized to work with projection displays.

And, while we’re mentioning support hardware, lets talk about the kind that it sits on. Our vendors offer us, and our inventories contain, large amounts of support hardware (rigging, scaffolding, frameworks, etc.) especially designed to make projection systems faster and easier. Replacing it with different hardware, in many cases, will add weight, size and expense to rental systems.

Rental is also a game of quantity. Nobody has enough inventory ALL the time, and a mature cross rental network is available around the world for dealing with cross-renting projectors and accessories when we need them. That kind of quantity and variety has not yet become as widely available for many of the newer technologies.

And, as I’ve said, sometimes this is a game of quantities — and here’s one where less is more — compared to a modular wall, especially at larger sizes, a projection system has fewer powered components, and therefore that many less places for a system to potentially fail. It makes a much easier system to back up with a redundant system.

And let’s talk about our biggest cost, once again — labor. It is currently much easier to get required crews, especially out of town with freelancers and union that have a high level of experience with projection than ones with experience in the new display technologies. Crew, freelance, and union familiarity with equipment are a huge part of planning a touring show.

Add it up. The larger the display size needed, the greater the savings in equipment weight, size, rigging, setup labor, casing costs, transport costs, insurance.

And, in our industry, we must also think about theatricality, lots of which is easy to establish around projection. For years, it has set the stage for great announcements and memorable moments. After 25 years of shows my heart still skips a beat when the house lights come down, and I’ll miss it when they don’t have to come down at all anymore.

I could go on a long time talking about the advantages of mature and stable projection technologies to rental, and go into the ease of producing large screen 3D displays, or of image warping around irregular objects. But there’s no need. We’re a practical industry, and to quote Marx, we get from each technology according to their capability.

I believe totally that the role of the projector will be diminished by more efficient, brighter, and easier to implement display walls. And I’m as enthusiastic about the new technologies as anybody out there.

So will projection use decrease as an overall percentage of rentals? Yes.

joel-2011Will it happen quickly? Not by a long throw — er, “shot.”

rAVe Rental [and Staging] contributor Joel R. Rollins, CTS-R, is General Manager of Everett Hall Associates, Inc. and is well known throughout the professional AV industry for his contributions to industry training and his extensive background in AV rental, staging and installation. Joel can be reached at Joel can be reached at joelrollins@mac.com