Besides saving money over time, lampless projectors also turn on/off instantly.

A new way to measure the brightness of colors; the ability to recognize inputs from any source, and not just a computer; and the move toward more lamp-free projectors are among the latest developments in audio-visual technology that have big implications for schools.

These developments—along with a wider range of formats that give school leaders new choices for deploying digital signage—were some of the key trends discussed at the 2012 InfoComm conference in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Measuring color brightness

When evaluating projectors, everyone looks at lumens as one of the primary indicators of image quality. But lumens only measure the brightness of white light, not colors. Until now, educators haven’t had a standard way to measure and compare color intensity.

That all changed in June with the introduction of the International Display Measurement Standard (IDMS). Developed by the Society for Information Display along with the International Committee for Display Metrology, the IDMS includes a uniform method for calculating what it calls “color light output.” This measurement gives school leaders an easy way to evaluate the color performance of various projectors.

“Twenty years ago, a typical projector presentation was text-based, usually plain black and white,” said Tanya Lippke, a principal at the market research firm TFCinfo. “Today, users demand high-quality photos, graphics, and video in their daily presentations, driving the demand for superior image quality.”

The new color performance metric applies to digital displays as well as projectors. Besides asking for color light output data when comparing different models, educators also can measure this for themselves with a simple light meter.

“A color light output specification should be of real benefit to … those responsible for projector selection, [making] it possible to properly compare different projector technologies,” said Art Feierman, president of ProjectorReviews.com. “Many projectors produce a hefty amount of white lumens but come up very short when trying to produce rich, accurate colors.”

3LCD, an industry group of projector manufacturers that use a three-LCD-chip design, has long claimed that its red-green-blue chipset produces more vibrant colors than Texas Instruments’ DLP technology. At this year’s InfoComm, 3LCD put its claims to the test by letting visitors to its booth measure the color light output of high-end (7,000-plus lumens) 3LCD and DLP projectors.

When measured side-by-side using what 3LCD claimed was the same standard configuration, the output from the three-chip projectors measured a higher color intensity than that of comparable single-chip devices.

Inputs from multiple sources

Another development worth noting is the ability to control a projector and interact with projected content from a variety of input devices, which gives educators more flexibility when teaching.

Epson’s new ultra short-throw interactive projectors, the 475Wi, 480i, and 485Wi, allow educators to switch between input devices and still have interactivity, the company says. This frees up the teacher’s computer and allows the teacher to connect multiple devices directly to the projector. For instance, a DVD player can be connected to the projector, and then a teacher could ask a student to come up to the interactive surface and annotate an image from the DVD.

This is a significant advancement, said Claudine Wolas-Shiva, senior marketing manager for Epson projectors. Before, if teachers switched to another input source, they lost the ability to interact with the projected content. That’s because other projectors have relied on software installed on the user’s computer to drive their interactivity, whereas Epson’s latest devices have an annotation application built in. As a result, students and teachers can use them to create an “electronic wall”—even when there is no computer connected.

“We’ve heard from schools that this new level of interactivity, what we call Interactivity 3.0, has … improved classroom dynamics for one-to-one [computing],” Wolas-Shiva said.

Soon, DLP projectors will have a similar capability, as TI announced a new DLP chipset at InfoComm that can display content from almost any device. Projectors with the new chipset, which will be available in late summer, will be able to display content seamlessly in common 3D formats from virtually any mobile device, TI said—including tablets, smart phones, laptops, and Blu-ray players.

“Creating a chipset that makes 3D and interactive technologies more accessible for projector developers is a major step forward for the industry,” said Roger Carver, general manager of DLP front-projection technology for TI. “This helps our customers build off-the-shelf projectors while adding new capabilities at a comparable price point.”

For schools with networked projectors, or projectors with wireless functionality, Epson earlier this year released a free app called iProjection, which enables users to project content from an iPad or Android tablet. At InfoComm, NEC also previewed an app called ImageExpress, which will let users project content and control presentations wirelessly from their iPad.

Richard McPherson, senior product manager for NEC projectors, said educators can use the app to turn their NEC projector into a document camera, taking a photo with their iPad and showing it to the class through their projector.

Lamp-free projectors catching on

Two years ago, Casio introduced the first lamp-free projector: the Green Slim Projector, an eco-friendly DLP projector that uses a patented hybrid “solid state” light source—combining laser and LED technology to achieve high brightness—instead of a traditional mercury lamp.

Designed to last 20,000 hours, or about 18 school years, the Green Slim Projector aimed to save schools money by eliminating the need for expensive lamp replacements. A typical mercury lamp lasts roughly 2,000 hours and costs about $400 to replace—meaning schools could spend thousands of dollars in new lamps over the life of a projector.

The Green Slim Projector was only 1.7 inches thick. But its slim form factor also was somewhat limiting, so at last year’s InfoComm, Casio launched two new series of lampless projectors—a Pro and a Short Throw series—that “remove the shackles of the slim form factor,” said a Casio representative.

Now, other projector manufacturers have followed Casio’s lead: BenQ and Optoma earlier this year introduced lamp-free projectors of their own that use an LED/laser light source instead of lamps, and Panasonic announced four lamp-free models at InfoComm 2012.

TI, whose DLP technology is used in these lampless projectors, released an infographic suggesting that U.S. schools spend nearly $110 million each year on replacement lamps, though the company didn’t indicate the source for this figure. Besides saving money over time, the new lampless projectors are more environmentally friendly and turn on/off instantly, TI said.

In the current economic climate, “schools are finding themselves under increasing pressure to deliver stronger … results with fewer associated costs,” said TI’s Carver. “These new lamp-free projectors … reinforce our commitment to that goal.”

Digital signage becoming more versatile

The increasing versatility of digital signage was on display at this year’s InfoComm, as a number of companies introduced signage products with creative form factors that give schools more options for catching the eye of students and stakeholders.

For instance, Casio demonstrated both a “virtual presenter” and a “virtual book.” The virtual presenter is a life-size silhouette of a person, with a projector mounted vertically behind it. When you record someone delivering a greeting, a lesson, or instructions, and then play this video on the projector, the video appears on the silhouette—making it appear as if the person is in the room talking. The virtual book is a surface with a projector mounted below, shining an image up onto the book’s touch-screen interface—and users can turn the “pages” by swiping with their finger, which reveals the next slide or image in the presentation.

Black Box introduced wearable digital signage that is intended for face-to-face marketing. Called iCOMPEL, it’s a 2-inch by 2.5-inch display that attaches to a lanyard or lapel. Its rechargeable lithium-ion battery lasts up to 12 hours, and you can use a software interface to upload images and control the device’s message; when you plug it in to recharge, its content automatically refreshes. The miniature player is perfect for sales reps at campus bookstores to promote special offers, for example.

Peerless AV introduced a sleek kiosk enclosure for indoor digital signage. Designed to support 55-inch ultrathin LCD displays, the kiosk enclosure gives schools an easy way to display content in the middle of a room or foyer.

LG promoted a product called EzSign, a TV-based solution that offers an easy way for schools to introduce digital signage. Users create their own content on a PC using the free EzSign software, then transfer this content to the EzSign LED TV with a USB flash drive. You can display advertising, information, and a live television broadcast on the same screen.

Visix previewed a new application of its own that aims to give schools an easy and affordable entry point into digital signage. Called APPOINT, the product leverages the PowerPoint platform to provide a cost-effective option for budget-conscious customers (such as K-12 schools).

APPOINT will enable users to create and schedule presentations that run as a tab within PowerPoint. No separate content server is needed, and media players can be smaller, less expensive PCs, Visix said. The software supports multi-zone layouts and animations; it will be available by the end of the year.