As seen in Sound & Communications - March 2018
By Richard Hill
National LED Display Solutions Manager
It’s a great time to be involved in the video and display business! Expert engineering and precise installation can come together in amazing ways to suit a diversity of unique application challenges. You, as a systems integrator, have more choices in display technology than ever before. When choosing between a projection system, an LCD videowall, or a direct-view LED videowall, one must consider the fundamental objective of the display system, the content that will be displayed, and the client’s budget expectations. Each technology has unique advantages and disadvantages that should be evaluated. Fortunately, there is a greater chance for a successful solution to your clients’ needs than ever before.
Room to Harmonize
Focusing specifically on the relationship between direct-view LED and projection systems, there is certainly room for both technologies to thrive…and even to harmonize. Let’s take a look at some sample environments and vertical markets to see how today’s choices among large-screen display platforms play out.
For many years in the projection industry, the goals were set at developing the brightest, most resolute, most color-accurate projection systems. Many projector manufacturers still remember the projector shootouts at InfoComm years ago. More than a decade later, around the time that the brightest DLP projection systems peaked in the 30,000 lumen range, laser illumination entered the picture and brought about a paradigm shift. The expensive, and somewhat unpredictable xenon arc lamp had grown tiresome, and the industry was ready for a more reliable – and lower maintenance – illumination solution for its projection systems. Commercial laser-illuminated projection technology still needed time to progress, because the brightest laser-projection solutions were mostly fewer than 12,000 lumens. At the same time, RGB direct-laser solutions began to emerge for commercial movie theaters. However, those systems were both costly and designed for a theater projection room, as opposed to a commercial integrated space.
It was during this time that improved-resolution direct-view LED solutions started to become more prolific for more than just large-scale outdoor and indoor environments. The increasing resolution (decreasing pixel pitch) rendered LED displays more suitable for closer viewing environments. The 4mm-to-8mm pixel-pitch range emerged as a viable option because the LED products were designed for the rental and staging markets, making them relatively easy to set up, strike, and reconfigure.
Recently, we have seen excellent use of both technologies working together in large venues, with fantastic results. A direct-view LED wall might be used as the primary display or in a unique aspect ratio configuration, whereas the projection systems are providing additional visual effects, or even projection mapping. In all cases, application and content must be considered. Projection will always have a more cinematic and film-like delivery, as well as broader flexibility when it comes to matching the image size to the venue efficiently. Also worth recognizing is that, with larger-pixel-pitch LED options (above 3mm in pixel pitch), videowalls must be very large in physical size to achieve HD and ultra HD resolutions.
Houses of Worship
With most houses of worship falling into the large-venue category, larger pitch LED would seem to be a viable solution, given its brightness. However, projection still holds the cards in terms of providing a more economical, higher resolution option. A popular screen size for a house of worship is 16 feet wide by nine feet tall. Today’s modern laser-projection solutions offer resolutions from full HD to 4K – and even 8k – along with excellent screen brightness and contrast. I would normally recommend an 8,000 – 18,000 lumen projection solution for a 16’x9’ screen, but more lumens might be required if ambient light is high. Although a 4mm indoor LED videowall offers higher brightness and contrast, for a 16’x9’ image, the resolution could be less than the customer desires. The number of pixels on the screen would only be approximately 1280x640, which is only 40 percent of full HD resolution. Image detail could be lost in this scenario, having been severely compromised by scaling down an HD source to the 4mm wall resolution. Today, with fine-pitch LED walls available, which have pixel pitches down to less than 1mm, the ability exists to match the pixel pitch to the required image size. Thus, HD or greater resolution can be achieved at reasonable sizes. Specifically, a 2.5mm pitch LED system reaches full HD resolution at exactly 16’ wide x 9’ tall and has optimal viewing conditions from 25’ away or greater.
Returning to the topic of aspect ratio, the building-block nature of an LED wall solution offers some creative license in set creation. Many contemporary houses of worship like to build different “looks” throughout the year. Projectors with warp and blend technology can offer a platform for that design, but sometimes it comes at the expense of resolution and brightness. LED wall solutions can be purpose configured with custom screen size and shape in mind, while still delivering their full potential in terms of resolution, brightness, and contrast. On a large, contemporary house of worship campus, many opportunities for both technologies exist, supporting a mix of imagery, digital signage, projection mapping, and classroom instruction.
Visualization and Simulation
Although these two markets are arguably very different, the “Viz” and “Sim” spaces are linked by the objective of creating an immersive visual experience. A common way to achieve that objective is to surround the viewer with a broad field of view, often with a curved screen. In the LED world, there are solutions on the market that use flexible LED panels; however, most require larger pixel-pitch configurations that would not be suitable for up-close, immersive environments. Some fine-pitch LED solutions can be curved in a faceted method, but the degree of curvature might be limited. For the most critical, most immersive simulation environments, projection still delivers the highest possible resolution and the broadest field of view. By using a multiple-projector blended array, systems integrators can construct displays that present tens of millions of pixels – even full dome immersion.
There’s still room for videowalls though. Perhaps for the same end user using the projector-based simulator, direct-view LED would be an excellent choice for a larger space in the facility in which team members collaboratively view the single-user simulation perspective in a debriefing or evaluation scenario.
For visualization application like Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (CAVEs), finer pitch LED solutions are starting to get very interesting. A CAVE system is typically a four-sided immersive room with projection on three walls and the floor. In some systems, the user wears a head-tracking system for perspective and even active 3D eyewear. The low-profile option of an ultra-fine-pitch LED wall has some appeal in this scenario. Mainstream fine-pitch LED solutions today go as low as 0.9mm, offering excellent viewing conditions for even the closest distances. Some fine-pitch LED wall manufacturers also have the option to do 120Hz stereoscopic 3D to further enhance the visualization experience.
The Corporate World
Some of the most impressive direct-view LED applications in recent years have implemented the technology in corporate lobbies and entryways, transforming these spaces into dynamic video experiences. Such environments generally reflect modern architecture, and they feature an abundance of natural light. Although a projection solution might be up to the task, it would likely require a very high lumen output device. Regardless of the lumen level, it is very difficult for a projector to achieve optimal system contrast in a high ambient-light environment. Higher lumen (20,000+) projectors typically require larger chassis sizes, and they come with an expected level of fan noise, making them more difficult to conceal in high-traffic, open spaces. Projectors also require an unobstructed light path, along with throw-distance criteria. In comparison, most fine-pitch LED walls are virtually silent, and they only add about four inches or so of depth to a wall. Many can be flush mounted inside the wall for a very streamlined effect.
Here is where direct-view LED can really shine. With a 100-percent front-service and front-installation LED product, the space can be visually transformed into a seamless digital canvas. LED walls are also unlimited in terms of size and shape, and they are powerful enough to deliver a stunning visual impact in most any ambient-light condition. Finally, the slim installation profile generally has no negative effect on other room aesthetics.
Direct-view LED is also making its way into smaller corporate spaces, such as conference rooms and boardrooms. Flat-panel displays seem to top out around 98 inches diagonal today, making them strong alternatives to projectors in smaller conference rooms. The question is, how many “projector averse” corporate clients have settled on a flat-panel screen that is, in reality, too small for their viewing environment? The emergence of 1.2mm, and even smaller-pitch LED panels has opened up new opportunities to bring appropriately sized full HD and ultra HD displays into high-end conference rooms, offering great results that excel in high ambient-light conditions. LCD videowalls offer a lower entry cost to achieve sizes larger than 100 inches, but even the narrowest-bezel LCD arrays will have seams that can be distracting for most types of content. Screen glare can also be a concern with flat-panel arrays. By comparison, most direct-view LED walls using SMD technology provide a contiguous image that benefits form a “matte” finish, eliminating potential reflections from lighting, bright objects, or windows in the room.
It’s wise for you, as a systems integrator, to sharpen your skills with all the display tools the market has to offer. Application needs, environmental challenges, content considerations, budget limitations, and installation complexity must all be considered when selecting the display product that will deliver the optimum solution.
Projectors, LCD videowalls, and direct view LEDs all have their place within our clients’ applications. Systems integrators now have at their disposal more solutions than they’ve ever had. We recommend participating in the training resources that manufacturers and trade association offer to become an expert in defining the best solutions for your project challenges. Regardless of which display technology delivers the best solution, your clients will recognize the “wow factor” that only a well-planned and well-executed video installation can deliver!
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