In recent years (and even recent months), projection technology has advanced tremendously to give projection designers a variety of new tools for artistic expression. With the advent of products like Catalyst, RADlite, and MBox, designers can now create an unlimited range of video images, and scale, rotate, zoom, edit, morph, color-mix, overlay, and blend them for a wide variety of unique effects. The results can be seen on an incredible variety of eye-popping projects, from Celine Dion in Las Vegas to La Bohème on Broadway to the upcoming production of Parsifal at the Seattle Opera.

Manufacturers of projection technology are continuing to push the envelope for live entertainment, incorporating a variety of new features and technologies in their products to enable designs that were unthinkable a few years ago. NEC, for example, recently unveiled the new WT600, which incorporates an aspheric mirror design instead of a traditional lens to allow for an extremely short throw distance. Now it is possible to get a 40" projected image from as little as 2½" from the screen, or a 100" image from less than 26" away. For rear-screen projection, this means as much as a foot in depth can be saved when creating a 100" image versus a traditional rear-screen system incorporating a projector with an optical lens. The WT600 can also be ceiling-mounted in front of a screen, enabling actors or dancers to move freely downstage of the screen without obstructing the light path. This allows front projection to be used theatrically without inhibiting directors in their staging.

The geometric correction technology built into NEC's new MT and GT Series installation projectors also offers new design possibilities. With geometric correction, perfectly square images can be projected even onto concave, convex, spherical, and other non-flat surfaces, and even into the 90° angle of a corner. Thanks to this, projection can now be integrated into set designs instead of the set having to work around the projection.

3D Reform technology utilizes horizontal, vertical, and diagonal keystone correction to create a squared image even when the projector is positioned significantly away from the center of the screen. When combined with the horizontal and vertical lens shift built into NEC's GT Series projectors, it enables projection designers to work in older theatres where a projector cannot be aligned close to the center of the screen, making projection more feasible in challenging environments.

NEC's MT Series projectors also introduce another new technology valuable to designers — automatic wall color correction. The projectors feature a built-in CCD camera that senses the wall's color, and the projector adjusts the drive levels to create a more natural-looking image on non-white surfaces, giving set and projection designers greater flexibility when working together.

Projectors offer more user adjustments than ever before, giving projection designers more ways to customize the projected image to their satisfaction. NEC's current projectors, for example, feature menu adjustments allowing users the ability to fine-tune individual colors, vary gamma levels, and correct white balance for improved white levels, color accuracy, increased dynamic range, and varied black levels.

Projection technology advancements not only allow for new applications, but can also help live venues meet their projection needs with fewer pieces of equipment for significant savings. NEC's new GT5000 and GT6000 projectors feature a dual lamp design that lets the user run one lamp at a time or both. For the GT5000, this means that the designer has the option of utilizing the projector at 3000 ANSI lumens or at 6000. In addition, the projectors offer an Eco-Mode feature that enables extended lamp life in exchange for a slightly reduced light output, and optional extended-life lamps make it possible to reduce light output even further for a lamp life of up to 4,000 hours. Projection designers can choose to run one lamp or two, and have three different light output levels for each, for a wide variety of brightness level possibilities from a single projector.

The latest generation of installation and large-venue projectors offers another feature that will become more and more valuable to projection designers in the coming years: networking capabilities. In the current generation of NEC products, it is possible to send static images wirelessly to the projector via Wi-Fi 802.11b or wired via the local area network. This technology offers the advantage of lower wiring costs in wired as well as wireless applications, since Cat-5 cabling is considerably less expensive than VGA cables, and also allows the signal to be run for longer distances without the image degradation and amplifiers necessary with VGA cabling. Wired and wireless networking will prove even more beneficial in the near future as projector manufacturers are diligently working to improve the technology to support video.

In addition to the increased affordability allowed by networking technology, the general cost per lumen of the projectors themselves is decreasing, making digital projection ever more feasible for productions large and small. Thanks to its greater accessibility, and to the new technologies making it easier to implement in virtually any staging environment, projection looks destined to play an increasingly greater role in the future of theatrical design.

Wayne Kubinski is director of engineering and technical services for NEC Solutions America, Visual Systems division.