by now you've probably heard about wireless projectors. Wireless projection is one of the hottest trends in the industry, and units offering this technology are popping up from dozens of manufacturers. And while there are plenty of features to consider and choose from, this new trend can be a bit confusing. After all, in the most literal sense, projectors are "wireless" when they are controlled with a hand-held remote. However, no standard projector is truly wireless — you have to plug them in somewhere. At the moment there is no such thing as a battery-operated projector; the wattage required is simply too high.
So what do projector manufacturers mean when they tout the value of "wireless?" More importantly, does it mean enough to plunk down money for a new unit? To answer these questions, buyers must first have a good grasp of what wireless technology is and how it's being used with regard to projectors.
The working definition of wireless
So-called wireless projectors implement a technology known as Wi-Fi — a nice marketing term for it's official name, the IEEE 802.11b wireless networking standard. Installed in a hotel or business, Wi-Fi lets attendees or employees wirelessly access a building's high-speed Internet connection or local-area network (LAN), and if the building happens to have one of the handful of projectors on the market that can be connected to such a network, wireless presentations are possible — with limitations, which we'll discuss in a minute. Such sophisticated setups are still rare, however, so for any other sort of wireless connection, a presenter must instead use a wireless card in their laptop's PC Card slot to control the projector through its matching wireless card.
One of the main benefits of wireless technology can be seen in a room with multiple presenters, where each speaker must plug their laptop in to a projector connection and unplug it when they're done. Joe Gillio, director of product planning in Sharp's LCD Products Group, says wireless technology trumps that problem by allowing a roomful of executives with wireless-ready laptops to seamlessly "beam" their presentations to the projector. "You can have collaborative group presentations without switching cables," explains Gillio.
The emerging wireless world
At this year's InfoComm International trade show in June, many manufacturers unveiled wireless projectors — all using the same basic technology, but with a few twists. Some companies, such as Sanyo, offer wireless capability with an optional module that can be connected to certain models. Sharp's new M25x Notevision projector comes with two 802.11b cards, one for the projector's PC Card slot and another for the presenter's laptop. NEC Solutions America took yet another tack, offering up three 6.5-pound wireless-capable models: the LT220, LT240 and LT260. The projectors vary in resolution, brightness and price, but each carries wireless capability with a single PC Card slot, which can hold an Ethernet card for physical connection to a LAN (so you can monitor the projector's maintenance status), or an 802.11b wireless card for laptop-to-projector content delivery.
The soft side
True wireless, plug-and-play presenting is still a dream, but according to Dan Zubic, product-line manager for Projection Systems at NEC, it's coming. Soon, all any presenter will have to do is "come in, turn the laptop and projector on, and go," says Zubic.
While that may sound wonderfully utopian, don't count on easy, free-flowing information at the touch of a button just yet. Currently, Wi-Fi technology is capable of a maximum bandwidth of 11 megabits per second. That means "you're not going to get animations or video. The bandwidth isn't there,"Sharp's Gillio cautions. Thus, if you want to present video off a DVD, for example, connecting the video port on your laptop to the projector with a nice fat cable is still the only way to go.
The ultimate promise of wireless projection is indeed heartening, and it is not difficult to foresee the day when wirelessly networked presenting environments will be the norm. Larger bandwidths, easier-to-use systems and more-reliable connections are still needed, but according to NEC's Zubic, presenters shouldn't be afraid to consider wireless presenting, even though it's still in its infancy. Like everything else in the presenting universe, "You need to practice with it," says Zubic.
Technology journalist Michael Goldstein covers projectors, displays and peripherals for Presentations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.