4K, laser and solid state illumination and 3D stereoscopic technologies are entering commercial and home markets. What is the potential for military simulation? MS&T’s Chuck Weirauch queried experts from four leading projection and visual systems companies.

4K Applications

4K UHD is resolution that provides four times the number of pixels (3840 pixels x 2160 lines, or 8.3 megapixels) than HD's 2 megapixels (1920 pixels x 1080 lines). The high resolution 4K seems to be the answer to achieving the Holy Grail of simulation, providing eye-limiting resolution (or 20/20 vision) for flight simulators.

According to the US Air Force and NASA, achieving this level of resolution matters, since young USAF pilots have an average visual acuity of 20/13, while the average FAA-approved flight simulator provides a visual acuity of 20/40.

While a joint Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and NASA projection dome project at Wright Patterson Air Force Base achieved a visual acuity level of 20/10 over a 360-degree dome, the effort involved nine Barco Sim 10 ten-megapixel projectors and numerous PC-based image generators. The high cost of such a system does not seem practical for widespread use at this point. However, once the demand for 4K increases by other markets such as cinema, the result could be lower costs for the application of 4K projection technology to the simulation market.

According to Dave Kanahele, Director of Simulation Solutions for Christie Digital systems, his company has worked with NASA and the Air Force towards solving the problem of achieving eye-limiting resolution. Christie just recently introduced two new 4K DLP projectors capable of 60 frames per second for the cinema market -- a "world's first," according to the manufacturer.

"What we have found together is that there is a recognition that there are really two components to eye-limiting projection, spatial resolution and uptake rate," Kanahele said. "As the technology starts to approach this level, the update rate is becoming increasingly important. Christie's recently announced TruLife platform will now position us with 4K at a full 60 Hertz and even beyond that. This a big leap forward for what we are going to build on, and we are launching it in the cinema business products area. We can leverage this platform for future simulation solutions. The push is coming from other markets, and this will drive the price down. So by leveraging other markets, we can drive the costs down."

According to Kristian Kolstad, projectiondesign's Director of Program Management, 4K projection is applicable where there is a high demand for the highest resolution, such as in the oil and gas exploration industry.

"There is a definite possibility with 4K DLP that will enable 4K for the future," Kolstad said. "This is particularly applicable for 3D data in virtual and augmented reality, but it is considerably expensive. Today driving a 4K projector for a 4K display is actually quite challenging. It has to be driven over PC-based multiple image generators, so it is a more expensive solution when it comes to the projectors on the display itself. But you also need to double up your image generators, which is a significant cost as well. It will be a while before costs come down for 4K to become practical for the simulation market."

While Dave Janke, VP of Sales and Marketing for Barco Simulation, agrees that eye- limiting resolution has always been the Holy Grail of simulation to duplicate the real world, and that it is possible to do today with today's technology, it is not always cost-effective to do so. It takes "a lot of pixels to do a 20/20 scene over a360 degree dome," Janke pointed out, and the company's flagship projectors can provide a 20/30 to 20/40 resolution at a considerably lower cost, he added.

Dermot Quinn, Product Development Manager for Digital Projection, told MS&T that his company is working to provide 4K to be used at higher frame rates over a broader range of applications than just cinema.

"4K is applicable to the simulation market," Quinn stated. "This technology enables us to achieve eye-limiting resolution, but it also potentially enables it for fighter simulation. With the increase in resolution with more pixels per square inch on the display, you could reduce the complexity of the projection dome by having a smaller number of projectors to cover the dome surface. Of course, the Holy Grail is to make those projectors employ solid state illumination, and that not only means that there are fewer of them but that they are also vastly more stable than is what is currently available with current lamp technology."

Laser projection and solid-state illumination

Both Barco and Christie have demonstrated their new laser projection systems for the cinema market within the past year. Although the concept of employing lasers for projection applications has been researched for at years 20 years, most of it has been in the area of directing a laser beam directly at the display screen. The new systems do not directly project laser light at the screen, and therefore are seen as safer and having more potential application to the simulation market.

"Lasers today are expensive and they are finding a market at the very high end of the market," said Peter De Meerleer, Director of Strategic Marketing for Barco." We are looking at them as far as applications to simulation, but there is a cost barrier. Laser is a technology that is coming and is being researched very heavily. However, I don't see it in the short term, since there are quite a few hurdles to overcome. One of the challenges to bringing lasers into the simulation market is speckle, which is important to simulation but difficult to overcome. The cost is still significant, which is affecting the development of the technology. It is a very promising technology, but it will first come in other markets, such as cinema."

But as Zoran Veselic, Vice President of Christie's Visual Environments Group, pointed out not only do lasers have the capability for projecting a brighter image and a broader range of colors across the spectrum, but they are a solid state source of illumination. De Meerleer acknowledges that solid-state illumination sources such as lasers and LEDs are the Holy Grail for projectors due to their much higher life expectancy than lamps, but, he pointed out, lamps are going to be around for quite some time yet because they are very cost-effective and bright.

"It's almost a foregone conclusion that solid state illumination is the future for more than just the cinema market," Kanahele said. "There is still a place for lamp-based projectors in simulation, but people will be spoiled with the stability of LED solid-state illumination and will want to carry that solid-state stability for higher levels of illumination, and right now that means laser projectors."

According to Quinn, his company feels that there are huge potential benefits to LED illuminated projectors, including stability, life expectancy, color balance and a very wide dynamic range.

"We believe that the combination of LED illumination and 4K chip technology will be very valuable to the flight simulation people in particular," Quinn explained. " For new designs 4K is of interest, but in upgrading current simulation systems, some worry about upgrading image generators as to be fully 4K capable. So it's going to take some time for the technology to be adopted. There is a market, but we recognize that it's going to take some time."

3D Stereoscopic

While the employment of 3D stereoscopic projection technology is still limited for military simulation-based training, there have been promising applications for it for such as mid- air refueling and maintenance training, as well as for some maritime operations. But as projector manufacturers move more towards 4K projectors providing higher resolutions and produce more projectors that are 3D capable, our experts see more potential for advancing this technology from scientific and design applications to those of training.

Quinn said that Digital Projection feels that it has taken the lead in 3D stereoscopic projection, creating a number of 3D-capable projectors for home theater applications, and many more for visualization in automotive design, scientific research, and architecture. But there is less interest in simulation circles, he pointed out.

"The key thing that enables a projector to show 3D stereo from a single projector is to show a very high frame rate," Quinn said."The simulators guys, even though they are not generally working in 3D, still sometimes want to see quite high frame rates because it's a way of reducing smear. All projectors capable of 3D image processing provide this benefit."

De Meerleer pointed out that Barco has been providing 3D stereoscopic projection systems for r the oil and gas exploration industry as well as automotive design for more than 20 years.

"Stereoscopic is seeing more entrance into simulation, but more in virtual and augmented reality applications in simulation," De Meeleer said. "The number of projectors that can support the technology is going up significantly."

Barco recently announced that Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd. (COMAC) has selected its simulation and virtual reality training system for the day-to-day training of its aerospace engineers. It will be the first simulation and virtual reality system in China’s commercial aviation industry. The proposed system consists of Barco’s Holospace L-shaped stereoscopic environment and five Galaxy NW-12 active 3D stereo projectors, providing a high-resolution and full-immersion 3D stereoscopic environment.

Visilec said that Christie has plans to deliver high levels of product for 3D stereoscopic projection. At least one such projector will feature a 4K DLP chip. "We can use 4K chips for non-cinema applications," Visilec stated. "It's a logical extension of our Matrix Stim product, and we are working towards Matrix Stim 4K. Our new TruLife product enables us to do 4K at 120 Hertz, and this gives us the basis for building a stereoscopic projector that can provide the maximum frame rate."

According to Kanahele, several companies have expressed their desire to use the Christie Holostation system. The company is offering a number of 3D stereoscopic projections systems, including its Holostation product, for applications such as maintenance training.

"We feel that when you bring training into the stereoscopic environment, then the quality of training can really increase," Kanahele explained. "We see more of this cross-combination of simulation and visualization. It seems that people in simulation are seriously considering stereoscopy as an additional element in training. Having to wear 3D glasses is the main challenge, but there could be some cases where stereoscopy and traditional simulation can go hand- in-hand."