January, 2001 | Portable projection has come a
long way since the teacher's pet wheeled the dusty-lensed
dinosaur with the frayed, fire-hazard cord into eighth-grade
social studies on a rickety cart. Today's projectors travel
business-class worldwide and have settled with equal comfort
into high-powered conference rooms and educational settings
alike. And these connectors don't just connect to wall socketslike
all business and institutional media delivery devices these
days, they connect to networks and to each other via modern
IT systems. But what exactly is a networked projector and
how does it fit into the scheme of modern business presentations?
And given realistic expectations of what connections may
await you at your destination, is it better to travel light
or to bring along a light projector?
My ideal portable projector or ultra-portable (or whatever
you want to call something in a projector that's easy to
carry around) is a unit that you don't have to carry at
all. That's right, zero extra pounds are all that I want
hanging from my abused, aging shoulder. Carrying my laptop
and usual sheaf of papers is enough. So how are you supposed
to deliver a primo presentation without a projector? Don't
worry, like the ancient proverbwhere Muhammad had
to go to the mountain, because the mountain was too heavy
to drag his waya lot of places already have projectors
installed so, when you finally get to that mountain, you're
set. I once did four different presentations in a row using
the clients' projectorsall I had to do was attach
a video cable to my trusty laptop and start talking!
When you know a projector is going to be available at
your destination, you don't have to carry one with you.
And when projectors are as ubiquitous as printersor
when the conference room "install rate" is high enoughyou'll
never have to carry a projector again (nor will you have
to give up or trade off performance to reduce carry weight).
At that happy moment, projector manufacturers also won't
have to worry about how many weighty features they have
to put into projectors either because chances are those
projectors aren't going on the road againthey'll stay
in the conference rooms and get fat and lazy.
One reason I've heard people use to justify carrying a
projectoreven when they know that a conference room
unit may be installedis trust. Projectors are a lot
like politicians: you learn to cope with the one you know.
Rather than taking a chance on a conference unit they don't
know and can't trust to perform properly during a critical
presentation, many choose to bring their own. I, however,
have never met a "working" projector in a decent conference
room that I couldn't coax a good presentation from, but
then maybe I'm just more liberal in my definition of good
than most presenters.
A projector is best found wired-up and ready to go in a conference
room. Better still, it is properly configured as part of a
network. Properly configured, to my mind, means you should
be able to tell (at a minimum) what kind of unit it is, whether
it is working or not, and how many hours its lamp has been
run so you can calculate the risk of having the lamp blow
out during your talk. Most of what I've seen and heard about
for even the simplest projector-inclusive networks tells me
that "projector status" information can be made available
to whoever wants to access that information. This means that
before you leave your office to give that big briefing with
the CEO, you should be able to log in to the correct site
(Internet or intranet) and find out if the conference room
you're headed towards contains a projector that works, and
if it's one that you know how to use.
A networked projector is usually a "smarter" projector
than most of those you hook up to directly. However, some
network projectors simply connect to a computer equipped
with special software (like InFocus' LightPort), which is
in turn a part of a network that is accessible either across
the office or around the world. "Smart projector" can mean
many things, from a projector that can send out an email
(like the latest batch of smart printers and other office
appliances) when it needs attention, to a projector that
contains an embedded pro- cessor running relatively conventional
software. I've seen many versions of the smart projector
over the years, starting with units that were more or less
conventional PCs (complete with full-sized keyboards) with
some kind of projector permanently attached. This kind of
system also sometimes appears as the big projector (or other
display device) with a PC permanently built into ityou
attach a keyboard and log in just as you would with any
other PC. Either of these configurations can do essentially
whatever you can do with the PC, but they have the limitation
of being specialized systems that aren't easily upgraded.
The typical "dumb" conference room projector has an RS232
or equivalent connector through which you can access or
control projector status. These kinds of connections can
be easily migrated (with a small bit of intelligence implanted)
to an Ethernet connection using standard protocols where
the same kind of status information can be easily accessible
over the intranet or Web. Given some more on-board horsepower
and memory, you should be able to send your presentation
to the projector hanging from your Ethernet network just
like you can send your report to the printer to be printed
But where's the advantage in that? You can already directly
attach to a projector and "print out" your presentation
any time you want to. The real benefit of a "networked"
projector should be that many peopleall of those who
can access the networkcan use that same projector
attached to the network like they can use any printer attached
to a network.
A PROJECTOR IS NOT A PRINTER
A networked projector needs to be more than just another output
device in order for it to be really effective. What good is
a networked projector if it just spits out any presentation
sent to it and then dumps the file the way a printer does?
What I want is a networked projector that accepts any presentation
file (in a variety of formats) sent to it and then saves that
presentation until I get to the conference room. With such
a system, I can work on my presentation in the comfort of
my own office and then email or FTP the resulting files to
the projector located in the room in which I'm doing my presentation.
When I arrive at the conference room containing the networked
projector, I can then access the file I sent (through an easy
point-and-click with the remote controlno typing) and
"give" the presentation, PC-free. I like this idea because
it also eliminates my having to carry the laptop into the
room and attach it to the projector, which is the source of
a lot of residual projector anxiety.
Saving a presentation to a networked projector is similar
to saving your presentation to a PC card stored in a projector
(or stuck in your laptop's PCMCIA slot), but with a few
key differences. Some of the PC card software products that
I've used are rather clumsyyou have open your presentation,
select a slide and then copy or "capture" that slide's image
to the PC card, which then saves the data in its own (usually
JPEG or BMP) format. However, even that process is improving.
Epson's "EasyMP" PC card presentation system in the new
PowerLite 715c, for example, accepts various file formats
including PowerPoint through a more efficient "drag-and-drop"
process. Once the files have been saved to a PC card in
your laptop, you can then pop the card out and carry it
to the projector. It's no network, but it comes close to
delivering the kind of file transfer-ease that's necessary
in a networked projector.
Also essential to a network projector is that it should
attach to a network with a standard Ethernet connection
in wired or wireless mode. It should be capable of receiving,
storing, viewing, or distributing any standard file format
including the ubiquitous MS Office formats. It should allow
checking on or configuring of the projector through the
Internet (standard browsers certainly work easier than custom
software for this function). The ability to save mark-ups
and other kinds of interactivity is fine to have, but not
a necessity in my opinion. However, one thing that I like
but haven't seen completely integrated into the latest and
greatest systems is the ability to synchronize a conference
room presentation with a Web presentation.
INFOCOMM PROJECTIONS: WHAT EPSON AND SONY PROTOTYPES PROMISED
At INFOCOMM this year, both Sony and Epson showed prototype
versions of small conference room projectors with tiny built-in
processors (along with sufficient memory and storage) running
what appeared to be something similar to Windows CE. These
systems (Epson called its system EasyMP.net) let the projector
"hang" on the network, accessible to anyone, and receive presentations
in a variety of formats including the main MS Office formats
plus the easily handled JPEG, BMP, and TIFF formatsbut
stills only, with no provisions for video. These projectors
can then "output" the presentation using built-in "viewer"
software. In addition to the remote PC card-like storage capability,
Epson's EasyMP.net and Sony's Simple Network Management Protocol
(SNMP) allows one to check and configure projector status
with standard browser software.
Both companies make projectors that look like Web appliances
when attached to a network, and in their INFOCOMM presentations
Sony and Epson also talked about wireless versions of their
systems. In my mind, once you're attached to a network,
going wireless is no big leap. There are plenty of easy
ways to make short, wireless network links, which is certainly
a lot easier than running wires. The wireless versions of
the networked projector shown by Sony and Epson were not
any better than the standard wireless protocols, meaning
too slow (11 MB/sec) for real-time image transmission. But
who cares? Provided it's compatible with my Apple AirPort,
I'll take a wireless Ethernet version of the networked projector
any day because I'm too lazy to run any more wires than
I have to. But if the wireless system is not easily cross-compatible,
you'd better stick with wires.
Epson went one step further in its EasyMP.net (initially
only available in the 8150I projector), and added some local
interactivity. Over the years, many companies have created
systems to allow the presenter to "mark-up," draw, annotate,
or highlight certain words on the slides they're presenting.
The drawing input in these systems comes from a mouse or
other graphical input device communicating back through
the attached computer. Many of these kinds of systems also
allow the presenter to "save" the marked- up slidesand
some of these file-saving systems have gotten very elaborate.
At any rate, the Epson EasyMP. net software saves just the
mark-ups in JPEG format, but it allows you to distribute
those JPEG files over the Net (intra or Inter), which is
of course what's most desirable to users of these products.
Sony talked about its version of collaboration software
called "e-conference" that will likely include a lot of
the same kinds of interactivity as Epson's when it becomes
available sometime in 2001.
SAME TIME, LAST YEAR: INFOCUS' LIGHTPORT
Late last year, InFocus Systems introduced its LightPort software
system. The product's cool slogan was, "Meet anywhere the
Web reaches." But even cooler was that it was more than just
a sloganit really worked. When running on remote users'
systems with log-on authorization, LightPort allows the Web
audience to seeand to hear through an audio connectiona
presentation via their browsers at the same time that the
real-time presenter gives the slides. The biggest drawbacks
to LightPort in the form that I saw were that it converted
all files to JPEG format for "remote" transmission, and it
only accepted MS Office documents for remote transmissionvia
JPEG resizing. In addition to giving the Web audience a poorer
image-quality, JPEG view of the presentation, LightPort could
not transmit any of the PowerPoint animation or special effects.
The local conference room audience could see everything, but
the Web audience could not.
LightPort also allows for the ultimate in lazy road warrior-ing.
What better than not to leave the comfort of your own space
when delivering presentations to a conference room on the
other side of the Web? However, just like what can happen
going in the opposite direction, the person giving the presentation
may see all of the data on their slides (as will the networked
projectors which actually have the complete, native file)
but the rest of the Web audience may miss data. LightPort
also does not allow for mark-ups or other types of on-slide
annotations. One final disappointment about LightPort is
that it is a Windows 98 PC-only applicationno other
systems need applyand this kind of OS snobbishness
is just not appreciated in today's more open Linux or Mac
environments. What's more, the $699 price tag (for just
a two-browser, LightPort software license) seems too much
for too little. This is especially true when other products
like the PC-only RealPresenter software from RealNetworks
gets you most of the way theresans projector management
or security functionsfor only $99.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF WIRELESS
I think that a good networked projector also needs to be fairly
democratic as well as affordable. InFocus System's LightPort
only runs on a PC and performs all of its projector management
functions only with certain InFocus projectors. With other
projectors, it supports LightPort presentations that can be
viewed by other LightPort-equipped PCs. Plus, LightPort requires
an RS-232 port for the PC attached to the projector (no USB
either), and a permanent IP address or a Windows DHCP configuration
along with the usual caveats about memory allocation and disk
space. The Epson EasyMP.net, when it's available, will only
run on Epson's PowerLite 8150none of Epson's older projectors
will work. However, with EasyMP.net, there is no need for
an attached PC like the LightPort requires. The 8150 has its
own RJ-45 Ethernet plug along with four USB ports for lots
of devices including a keyboard. Sony's INFOCOMM e-presentation
demo system consisted of a complete Windows CE system embedded
in a projector, communicating over the IEEE 802.11b wireless
standard running at 11 MB/sec.
I previously stated that I like wirelessI use Apple's
AirPort for wireless networking all the timebut given
the various known incompatibles between so-called similar
802.11 systems, I think that the ideal networked projector
should also allow for either wired or wireless communications.
Networked systems, wired up with good CAT-5 cables, are
hard to beat.
As a person who has carried so-called "portable" computers
around the world (starting with the first "Portable Mac")
for business presentations, I fully embrace the concept
of Web-capable, networked projectors. I am just plain lazy
and I don't want to cope with carrying too much stuff anymore.
I hope that network projector technology, once fully and
widely implemented, will lighten the load for all the people
of the world who now walk around with one shoulder lower
than the other. I know it is possible, I have seen and used
bits and pieces of the technology, but I'm still waiting
for the complete solution. I want my Web-accessible networked
projectorwith good streaming video! So hurry up, Epson!
Hurry up, Sony! Bring those new products on! And for the
rest of us who are forced to use older projectors, InFocus
and RealNetworks, please open up LightPort and RealPresentermake
them more flexible and cross-platformand give that
software the ability to liberate us, the struggling masses
of road warriors.
Dare to Stream
Though it would seem a natural progression of the
technology, streaming and/or providing real-time video over
anyone's networked projector with a built-in processor is
not in the current or planned releases. Right now, projector
companies are just getting their JPEG engines going, and I
don't know of anyone working on an MPEG-1 or 2 engine or even
something close, which is what's required to run and process
compressed video from a stored file. Streaming video over
the Internet also requires more horsepower than any current
network projector equipment can supply. Remember that network
projector manufacturers are currently working from Windows
CE-type machines, which are pretty slow. For the moment, they're
happy to do a quick JPEG decompression. An InFocus kind of
approach (with a powerful attached PC) should be able to do
a better job, but it is also kind of JPEG-oriented, with no
talk of shifting to an MPEG focus as yet.
Networked Projector Must (and Should) Haves
To qualify as an according-to-Hoyle network projector, any
candidate for the category must:
- Be a compact, Plug 'n Play Ethernet-ready appliance
with wired and wireless connections plus USB device compatibility
- Have cross-platform abilitiesno place for OS snobs
- Access, manage, and configure projector from anywhere
across the Net with any browser
- Transfer all types of files intact
- Save and distribute transferred files (up to limits
of on-board storage)
- View and project all types of files from the projector
- Simultaneously present to Web audience (with audio)
via your network
- Present remotely from the Web via a remote network (with
audio) to all audiences
Attractivebut not essentialfeatures in a network
- Annotating on-the-fly
- Saving and Distributing annotation files
- Across-Net collaboration on certain file types
- Streaming audio and video in small windows (requires
more on-board horsepower than current systems) bi-directionally.
Don't Be Fooled
Speaking of CAT-5 cable systems, Proxima (Projectionlink)
and Extron (CAT 5) are both now offering CAT-5 cable and RJ-45
connector-compatible systems for hooking projectors to computers.
These systems may use network cables and connectors, but don't
be fooledthese are not network-attachable projectors.
Both companies think that users can hook computers to projectors
more easily (and cheaply) with CAT-5 network cables than they
can with BNC cables. That may be true, but don't try to go
through an Ethernet hub on the way to the projectorit
won't work. The CAT-5 cables in these new systems are just
carrying old-fashioned analog RGB video signals, not digital
Companies Mentioned in This Article
Epson America, Inc.
3840 Kilroy Airport Way, Long Beach, CA 90806; 800/463-7766,
562/981-3840; Fax 800/442-2110; http://www.epson.com
1230 South Lewis Street, Anaheim, CA 92805; 800/633-9876,
714/491-1500; Fax 714/491-1517; http://www.extron.com
27700B SW Parkway Avenue, Wilsonville, OR 97070; 503/685-8888;
Fax 503/685-8887; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.infocus.com
Proxima 9440 Carroll Park Drive
San Diego, CA 92121 888/776-9462, 858/457-5500; Fax 858/677-5653;
1111 3rd Avenue, Suite 2900, Seattle, WA 98101; 206/674-2700;
Sony Electronics, Inc.
3300 Zanker Road, San Jose, CA 95134; 408/955-5068; Fax