Power Technology Inc., a home-grown Arkansas company that’s been doing innovative things with lasers for 50 years, is ready for its cinema close-up.
The Alexander business still manufactures the first product it ever developed, a portable laser first used to lay sewage pipe, but its products have found their way into everything from space vehicles to medical devices. Now its laser knowhow is aimed at getting moviegoers back into theaters.
PTI, founded by Thomas Burgess and led by his sons, Walter and William, specializes in precision instruments used in missile guidance, blood and DNA testing and protecting service members from anthrax. But Walter Burgess, vice president of sales and engineering, says PTI’s newest product, a laser-based movie projector called Illumina, will be the basis for a spinoff company, tentatively named CinemaLaser.
“We’ll be positioning it for investment or acquisition,” Burgess told Arkansas Business. “We’ll be looking for investors, or even to sell that division.”
The new projector’s strength is that it improves image quality while using less power and saving theater owners money, said Burgess, who called the project an offshoot from earlier work for the military.
In 2012, Power Technology took on a $1 million project with the U.S. Navy to create a laser without “speckle,” an unwelcome grainy pattern within a laser. While eliminating speckle, workers produced a laser giving off brighter light than xenon bulbs, considered the “gold standard” for image projectors.
So the team resolved to create a laser projector that was both better than xenon-bulb systems while remaining cost-effective for theater owners.
The system could aid cinemas beset since the early 2000s by box office declines that steepened as viewers increasingly stayed home to watch streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. “Cinemas stopped investing, while movies and television that can be accessed from home got better,” Walter Burgess told Arkansas Business. “What we are seeing is a knee-jerk reaction to try to get people back into the movies,” including features like reclining and heated seats, alcohol and food service, “and technical presentation in an attempt to reverse the trend,” he said.
PTI’s goal was to give people a reason to go out to the movies by making the movie theater experience notably better than audiences will find watching at home. “We want them to leave the theater with this feeling of intense satisfaction because of a great story, but also that they had a great experience,” Burgess said.
Illumina projectors start at $60,000 for a very small screen and can go up to a $250,000 for a premium large-format screen, the equivalent of an IMAX screen,” Burgess said. Xenon projectors can range from $40,000 for a small screen to $400,000 for a premium large-format screen.
Burgess laid out the selling points of a laser projector. First, a laser projector can cut energy use in half when compared with a xenon bulb projector, and the lasers PTI produces have a usage life of 30,000 hours, an estimated five to seven years.
A xenon bulb costs about $1,000 and has a usage life of 1,000 hours. A typical exhibition day at a U.S. theater is 12 hours. This means that bulbs can need replacement every three months. Those headaches, Burgess said, are solved by a laser projector.
Cinema is one of many uses for laser-based projection systems, he said, adding that amusement parks, planetariums and military simulations could also benefit from the technology.
“One flight simulator has 54 bulbs; that is 54 chances for a single bulb to be out and ruin your day of training,” Burgess said. “Disney is doing away with fireworks, but they are replacing those with laser-based projections.”
Thousands of dollars could be saved by transitioning to displays using laser as the light source, Burgess said. Besides the expense of a xenon bulb, amusement parks like Disney have the added costs of realigning their projections when a bulb goes out, a process than can cost around $10,000.
Illumina also offers greater image clarity and color intensity than a xenon bulb can provide, the company says. Illumina uses hundreds of red, green and blue lasers to make the studio’s version of white, producing the ideal color saturation for film viewing, Burgess said.
Laser projectors like Illumina produce a wider color gamut than a xenon bulb-based projector. Illumina produces a higher percentage of colors perceptible by humans, greater than a high-definition TV or a movie projection using a xenon bulb.
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To show off its system, PTI installed two Illumina projectors in the Ron Robinson Theatre in downtown Little Rock, inviting projector manufacturers and other potential customers to see the quality of the images. Burgess did not specify how many of their projectors have been installed or which companies came to the demo day, but of the four projector manufacturers for cinema, Sony, Barco, Christie and NEC, some representatives saw the demonstration.
PTI, which has a 25,000-SF building and a 12,000-SF near the southwest Little Rock city limits, avoids revealing how many employees it has, but it has been building up its teams in preparation for the new company.
“We’re spinning it out, is the word I’ve used,” he said. “The process has started and we’re just waiting for the lawyer.”