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What Can (or Should) a Networked Projector Do?

WK Bohannon

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 sockets–like 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 proverb–where Muhammad had to go to the mountain, because the mountain was too heavy to drag his way–a 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' projectors–all 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 printers–or when the conference room "install rate" is high enough–you'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 again–they'll stay in the conference rooms and get fat and lazy.

One reason I've heard people use to justify carrying a projector–even when they know that a conference room unit may be installed–is 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 it–you 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 out.

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 people–all of those who can access the network–can use that same projector attached to the network like they can use any printer attached to a network.


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 control–no 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 clumsy–you 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.


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 formats–but 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 slides–and 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.


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 slogan–it really worked. When running on remote users' systems with log-on authorization, LightPort allows the Web audience to see–and to hear through an audio connection–a 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 transmission–via 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 application–no other systems need apply–and 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 there–sans projector management or security functions–for only $99.


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 8150–none 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 wireless–I use Apple's AirPort for wireless networking all the time–but 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 projector–with 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 RealPresenter–make them more flexible and cross-platform–and 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 abilities–no 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


Attractive–but not essential–features in a network projector include:

  • 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 fooled–these 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 projector–it won't work. The CAT-5 cables in these new systems are just carrying old-fashioned analog RGB video signals, not digital packets.

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

Extron Electronics
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; info@infocus.com; http://www.infocus.com

Proxima 9440 Carroll Park Drive
San Diego, CA 92121 888/776-9462, 858/457-5500; Fax 858/677-5653; info@proxima.com; http://www.proxima.com

RealNetworks, Inc.
1111 3rd Avenue, Suite 2900, Seattle, WA 98101; 206/674-2700; http://www.real.com

Sony Electronics, Inc.
3300 Zanker Road, San Jose, CA 95134; 408/955-5068; Fax 408/955-5340; http://www.sel.sony.com

WK Bohannon (manxrsrch@aol.com), founder of Manx Research, an independent evaluator of projection and display systems, has more than 25 years of experience in high-tech industries in areas from nuclear spectroscopy to high-energy laser systems and artificial intelligence. He has worked as chief scientist for Display Products at Proxima Corporation from 1989 to 1994, and lived through the birth of today's small electronic presentations systems.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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