An Open Proposal for Innovation, Part Two: Projector Math

The previous article identified some of the challenges to maintaining a large number of high-tech classrooms constructed with traditional presentation technology, namely that the exorbitant cost of upkeep transforms great classrooms into “fiscal alligators” that ravage funding pools. Let’s take a closer look at one big-ticket item: the display system.

A few assumptions

  1. Until digital wallpaper is perfected, there is no getting around the need for a projected image in a classroom or conference room with more than twenty seats or so.
  2. Integral to learning (and dominating every aspect of our lives), the big-picture genie cannot be put back into the bottle. In the near future, expect to find large digital displays everywhere.
  3. For text to be readable, the height of a projected image must be at least one-sixth the distance to the farthest viewer (one-fifth is even better). No one takes binoculars to class unless they’re on a bird watching field trip.
  4. For any image to be easily readable, it must offer sufficient contrast (black text on white background) and color clarity. A bright projector (greater than 3500 ANSI lumens) is needed. No one ever complains that the projected image is too bright. No one should have to dim the lights while teaching unless they’re teaching 20th-Century photo processing.
  5. It is unclear whether flat panels offer greater practical longevity than projectors, despite manufacturers’ claims to the contrary. Let’s play it safe and assume they also have a useful life of about four or five years.
  6. DVI is not going to solve all our problems. 99.9% of the classroom systems currently in place utilize analog video processing. Most laptops in service still have VGA (analog) video outputs. Hoping to solve a plumbing compatibility problem withyet more plumbing seems counter-intuitive and costly.



A projector’s replacement is precipitated not by the exhaustion of its innards, but by its advancing incompatibility, which diminishes trouble-free operation.

As a primary contributor to unsustainable conditions, consider the data projector (or any type of large-format digital display, for that matter). Much like computers, data projectors have a useful life of less than five-years: after four years, a projector’s replacement is precipitated not by the exhaustion of its innards, but by its advancing incompatibility with outboard signal sources (i.e. computers), which diminishes trouble-free operation.

Take that shiny new ThinkPad or iBook: It contains everything Professor-X needs to teach class. The first time he tries to use it in class, he encounters difficulties. Valuable class time is lost and, though initially enthusiastic, over time, Professor-X may grow disinclined to use tech for teaching in front of students after wasting time fiddling with cryptic screen resolution “compatibility settings” to coax the 5-year old classroom projector to display properly.

Projector-fail Is the projector “broken”? Hardly. It is doing exactly what it was designed to do. What no projector manufacturer can (or is yet willing to) bake into its product is the ability for the device to guess what crazy combination of video frequencies and resolutions Lenovo and Apple laptops may use five years in the future.

(Note to self: How is it that computer companies are able to utilize Flash-ROM to upgrade firmware, but not projector manufacturers?)

Projector-Toss2 And so, once a year, classroom hotlines at campuses all across the country replaces perfectly good (or at least not entirely worn out) four-year-old projectors at a cost of up to $3-4k per unit. For example, if a campus has about 200 projectors in service, one-quarter of their installed units (50 projectors) must be replaced annually at a cost of about $200k. That’s $1M every five years just for projectors!

Unintended outcomes

So, what happens if a large institution like UNC skips a year? When faced with a host of unpopular budget cuts, what if the powers-that-be put their foot down and just say ‘no’ to pesky requests for lifecycle money? These days, budget constraints compel many campuses to adopt a “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach by deferring lifecycle activities in order to mitigate short-term funding shortages. In doing so, support personnel cross their fingers, hope for the best, and pass over the replacement of a finicky old LCD projector for an additional year.* Over time, lifecycle deferments contribute to a ripple effect…

Class time delays. Users (faculty and students) who attempt to connect new computers to old, finicky projectors are likely to encounter (what they perceive to be) malfunctions because older projectors have difficulty rendering foreign video signals into a digital image.

Increased service requests. Users who encounter projection difficulties place service calls to “fix the broken projector that won’t display my laptop image.”

in hot water Reduced operational capacity. Service calls consume man-hours and, these days, personnel are in short supply. Busying support staff with outbound service calls that result in “no trouble found” depletes support organizations of reserve capacity essential to address real emergencies and high-priority activities such as video conference support, calls from customers who have pre-paid Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and scheduled event support.

Diminished confidence in classrooms and support operations. What conclusions do customers draw when they experience technical difficulties, file service tickets and receive the message that the technician found “…nothing wrong with the projector, it could be your laptop…”? What do they conclude when the same problem occurs the next time they teach in the same room? Then, once again in a different room? With the accumulation of “negative press” what is the probability that a service unit under scrutiny can make a compelling case for increased funding?

Short-term tactics to contain costs may impact students and faculty who suffer from lost learning time.

Reduced use of technology in teaching. Once bitten, twice shy. It is operant conditioning. People prefer not to use stuff that fails, and will stay away in droves when burned (and embarrassed) repeatedly. Welcome back to the 20th-Century.

In summary

Arbitrarily lengthening critical equipment life cycles by decree may not serve to reduce total costs as much as to shift operational costs from hardware (replacing clunky with compatible) to labor (furnishing self-service classrooms with on-site technicians to mitigate hardware quirks). Short-term tactics to contain costs may impact students and faculty who suffer from lost learning time. Classroom operations (classroom systems and support personnel) may be jeopardized as a result of a justifiable loss of customer confidence — a consequence of bad experiences with finicky technology beyond its functional duty cycle.

 *For many readers, rejected lifecycle requests are the status quo. Ask yourself, for how many years might the fates protect you from catastrophic system failure before system usability has deteriorated across-the-board with little hope of catching up?


by Joe Schuch
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  • John Donelly

    Technology is here to stay the light will still come on and no one is going to stay in the dark, people will not even venture to guess on how to turn on the projector but wait for the tech to come and fix it (job security).

    As long as manufacturers keep building technology products that will do every unimaginable function ( except be user friendly) there will be techs. There are many schools of thought on visual communication and G.E where I studied determined the size a character would have to be at a 100′ distance (one inch) to be readable by an average audience.

    There is no mystery that the general public is skilled only at finding someone else to “fix it” and at a discounted price, much appreciation is expected for the knowledge and skill that it takes to provide this service and make a decent living. The point being that any good project takes planning and consideration of purpose, use and audience.

    Built in programing and contingency planning is to be considered for user level comfort. Everyone knows how to turn on the TV, DVD, I-Pod, until these are presented in a recognizable format there will continue to be problems with un-aided operation. Orientation, Education and solid web or user interface control with online access to help specific to the installed system will allow anyone with a basic computer “GUI” interface or interactive help system to master their understanding.

    I am constantly challenged by this and try to build in the inherent system tools provided by the manufacturer/s of new equipment and technologies innovation at simplifying these processes, CEC initiative allowing compatible devices DVD, Audio, Video and peripherals (printer laptop, media devices) to interact with each other with and in lew of standard connections guiding the user through their interface instead of baffling, confounding and frustrating further trust in technology.

    Every installation I have seen in the last 25 years has assumed that there would be a reduced need for technical services because of the technically advanced features. When in reality there was no attempt nor was it accepted to implement technology services to the users and that the use of “all” of the available features was beyond the scope of the user or the facility yet need to be available for future expansion.

    The reality has been that the equipment reached a plateau of operational usage and would be easier to replace than to rent, upgrade or disregard end of life equipment. There are considerations for size ans scope of the functionality you can have the tech work any way you like it only requires one thing $$$$$ so consider what is necessary and accept the fact that there will be humans and there will be technically proficient humans, the projector won’t get it’s feelings hurt and never turn on again, it’s just the bulb.

  • UserEnabler

    I’ve got projectors in use since 1999,around the time XGA became the average native projector res., and they still connect with the latest ThinkPads, Dells, and Macs (there’s a certain brand I like, begins with “SH”, that has held up better than any other since we first started buying them in 1996). You a guest? Bringing a strange laptop? We’re going to meet ahead of time to make sure your machine works in situ or you’re going to send me a draft of your slide show ahead of time (downloaded from corporate FTP site if necessary). Projector/laptop compatibility is not an entitlement. Instead it’s healthier for all to assume they’re not going to work together without intervention. For faculty this means fair warning you’d better schedule a training session prior to term. Faculty, are you partial to that really high resolution setting (how on earth can you even see the icons so tiny)? Well, when you bring your laptop to class we’re going to take the res. down a notch or two. Don’t like that idea? Send me your files or store them on a file server and retrieve them on the classroom PC we bought for your use. As for unsustainablility of AV systems, well heck, let’s not stop there, after all, the politics of those who like using the term “sustainable” would have us all living in the dark ultimately to save the planet. So while we’re making our classrooms sustainable why don’t we just cut off electricity to the room. Let’s make sure we include what we’ve done in our college’s admissions brochure, too. Prospective students will love to know that their classes will be by candle light. Too much carbon? Hey,with the lights totally out Braille textbooks will be all the rage.

  • Randy Tyndall

    This article hits home for many of us, as we typically get those calls about why their laptop won’t work with a projector. The connection problem is particularly acute as soon as someone brings an Apple mac. There are more than 4 different connectors, all of which are not interchangeable and trying to explain via phone what adapter is required leads again to more frustration for everyone.
    The lack of standards and the evolving connector jungle will not go away in the near future. One cannot make an all-in-one wall plate without taking up valuable wall space and it simply doesn’t exist a this time. What to do?
    Educating the masses might be one approach, with a tutorial section posted on your facilities website and making a hard copy available (or at least in pdf form).