Some months back I attend the CEDIA convention – the annual conference for the professionals who install custom high-end home theaters and audio systems. At the conference there were a couple of industry pundits proclaiming that in the coming years we’d witness the death of projectors. They even hosted hosting a seminar to share their predictions and rationale with installers and anyone else who would listen.

Obviously, as a projector manufacturer, it certainly was an intriguing, if not frightening, topic. And I could not help but ask myself, “Have I been so consumed with my daily workload that I’ve missed the bigger picture?” But after hearing their opinions and taking a close look at the industry landscape, I came to a simple conclusion. They are so wrong. It’s just not going to happen. In fact, it’s become clear to me that the future of projectors keeps getting brighter and brighter (pun intended).

Before I go further, let me make it clear that I am not predicting that projectors will supplant flat panel televisions. On the contrary, flat panel televisions will always hold the lion’s share of the market. And there is no question that the explosion in popularity of flat panel HD LCD displays, and the resulting competition among leading brands to steal market share, has driven prices down and sizes up. Think about it. Today you can buy a 46″ HD flat panel display for under $1,000. That’s a terrific value. Buy it, mount it, connect it, and you’ve got a nice little system that can work in home theaters, boardrooms and classrooms.

But just because televisions are getting larger and cheaper doesn’t mean projectors are going the way of the 8-track player. On the contrary, there are more reasons than ever why projectors are growing in popularity: Maybe Bob Dylan foresaw all these developments when he wrote the lyrics, “The times they are a-changin.”

It is true that projectors have long been seen a somewhat of a fringe product. (I prefer to think of them as “misunderstood.”) In the home they’ve almost always been associated with exclusive, high-end home theater installations that relatively few people could afford. In the business, you find them hanging from the ceilings or mounted conference room tables. And in classrooms, they’re often found on a rolling cart, already connected to a DVD player or a VCR. In each of these cases, a professional has installed them and made them ready to play.

But new technologies and application-specific designs are setting projectors free. There are more ways to incorporate projectors into our lives in ways that flat panel televisions cannot even dream of.

Now, let’s ask a simple question: Why do we use/like projectors? Well, projectors offer users an unparalleled ability to “go large.” And to do it affordably. Today, for less than $900, you can buy 1080p HD projectors that allow you to display images as large as 300″. Now THAT’S home theater! And if you don’t need 1080p HD, you can choose a 720p projector, which can bring the price down to below $700, while still producing a big, beautiful picture. So on a cost/size basis, whether for home or business use, you can’t beat a projector. But home theater is only one application for projectors. And there are other factors that have future of projectors glowing.

You can’t talk about television today without talking about 3D. While certainly not the “next HD” it was being marketed as last year, it is still a feature that will continue to grow in popularity as more content is developed and the technologies to deliver it are refined. And whenever that happens, and whatever the application, there is one consistent truism: 3D is better BIG. The bigger, the better. That’s why 3D’s successes to date have been limited to movie theaters. And the biggest successes in the movie theaters have been on IMAX screens. And the only systems that can affordably provide that same sense of “big” in the home, office or classroom is a projector.

There are other new developments that have been driving product development teams to think outside the traditional “projector use” boxes. New technologies, and innovative features have radically changed where we find projectors how we use them.

For example, three short years ago, you only found projectors in the areas I spoke of earlier: home theaters, boardrooms and classrooms. But today, by bundling long-existing features in new ways, product developers successfully have tapped into the ever-popular and growing gaming market, giving gamers the “total immersion” experience that increases the realism of the game. At the same time, these projectors are designed to be portable, which supports the users’ lifestyles.

But the most exciting developments have to do with newer technologies that have the capacity to expand projection use in ways not even conceived of a few short years ago.

The world is becoming more and more mobile. We want to take our technology everywhere we go. And projectors now offer a level of portability that flat panel displays never will. We are entering the age of the Personal Projector.

Miniature light engines, such as the Pico DLP chip developed by Texas Instruments, as well as laser light engines and LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) technology, combined with LED lighting, have put the power of projection, quite literally, in the palm of your hand. When first introduced just over two years ago, these small-power wonders turned a lot of heads, as they promised to radically change the way projectors were used. Not only did they promise to alter the “portable” projector landscape, but they offered interesting product integration possibilities. And today we are beginning to see all of this.

Current-model micro projectors, battery-powered and weighing a scant 4 oz. to 8 oz., fit in the palm of your hand, yet deliver more than 5-times the power of the first Pico models of just 2 years ago. They easily connect to computers, but because they also connect to portable media players, the need for lugging a computer along for the ride is eliminated. In fact, some models offer enough internal storage to hold gigabytes of content, so you can be completely attachment free.

We’re also beginning to see these micro projectors integrated into other products, too. For example, 3M recently introduced its new Shoot ‘n Share camcorder – with a built-in LCoS projector. Less than 5 inches long and 2.5 inches wide, this little marvel records video in up to 720p and then project it onto walls or screens as large as 65 inches diagonally.

Offering a slightly different application, two new products, WowWee’s Cinemin™ Slice and Optoma’s Neo-i, have combined Pico projectors with iPod sound docks to provide plug and play home cinema from your iPod or iPhone. The Neo-i even supports images as big as 120 inches. Both also offer a full complement of I/O ports for connecting to other devices, as well. Talk about your perfect bedroom/dorm room companion…

Fortunately, these innovations represent the beginning of a new movement. As these technologies evolve, and as new ones are developed, projectors will cease to be that fringe, or misunderstood, product. Instead, they will shine more and more brightly as a mainstream product. And that is the true reality.

Jon Grodem, Sr. Director of Product & Marketing, Optoma Technology, Inc.
As the senior director of product and marketing, Grodem is responsible for all product and marketing strategies for the American markets, and has championed Optoma’s transformation from a value brand to one now recognized for both innovation and performance.