Movie Tastes Change, Lasers Will Follow

As anyone who follows lasers knows, lasers themselves are mostly tools, which in large part, depend on another market to drive them. For example, if industrial production drops, and the need to cut sheet metal is reduced, it doesn’t take a giant stretch of the imagination to see that the number of lasers needed to cut sheet metal might also drop. However, in some areas, it can be much more complicated than this.

Take laser cinema projection, an area I have written on in the past. If you have been following, you know that lasers are now being used as the white-light source for thousands of cinema projectors in movie theaters around the world. Many IMAX theaters use them, as do Dolby theaters. In addition, the technology is being used at thousands of smaller multiplexes being built, especially in China.  In fact, anyone following the fast-growing use of lasers as a light-source for cinema is sure to be impressed, and in fact five years ago this technology didn’t even exist.

Still, while all for lasers seems to be going well for this new technology, and by all-accounts lasers produce fantastic movie projection brightness and color gamut, and the best 3D eye image separation possible, one shouldn’t lose-sight of the fact that laser cinema is riding on the movie industry for its success, and here lies the problem. The movie industry is facing some serious problems. Movie attendance in the U.S. and Canada have been dropping and in the past decade, annual ticket sales have dropped by 80M. China, however is a bright spot. The number of theaters in China recently surpassed the number in the U.S., and China Box Office revenue will soon surpass that of the U.S.

For laser cinema projection, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Last month, IMAX announced that it would focus less on 3D movies, and sharply cut-back the number that are produced. If you remember earlier this year, both LG and Sony announced 2017 would be the last year they produced 3D TV’s. (Samsung stopped manufacturing them in 2016, and Vizio stopped in 2013.)  In large-part, this announcement by IMAX hints of an ominous message, that 3D movies are fading fast in the American market, while they still remain popular in some other countries, such as China.

This is not great news for laser cinema projection in two ways. First, for giant screens like those IMAX screens, only one RGB projector will be used per screen rather than two. While 3D is possible with a single projector using other technology, as many laser phosphor projectors do, but the end result is not as ideal. Second, because 3D and the resulting brightness loss from the 3D glasses was the reason in the first place for the argument to turn to lasers, if you take away 3D, you are also weakening one of the arguments for laser cinema, brighter screens.

While the reduction in 3D movies doesn’t spell the end to laser-powered cinema any more than the death of 3D TV spelled the end to TV, there are some other ominous items to watch. Like the fact that summer 2017 U.S. box office revenues in the U.S. might be the lowest in 25 years. It’s clear that there are changes occurring in the movie-watching public. Also, in other areas, the trends can be very different, for example in China, which now has more movie theaters than in the U.S., and also last year installed more laser cinema projectors than anywhere else in the world.

In any case, watching how laser projection evolves in the U.S. and elsewhere is turning out to be very fascinating. Keep in mind, this is a potentially quite large laser application that didn’t even exist five years ago.  If fact, watching the evolution of laser cinema has turned out to be much more interesting than watching the movies they have released this summer.

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