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Projectors: A Guide To Truly Cinematic Gaming

Get the big picture

Are projectors any good for gaming? Just possibly, I'm not the right person to ask. After all, I've a smallish obsession with big screens. If there's a single, consistent theme to what I hesitate to call my career as a tech hack, that's pretty much it. Biased? Oh yes. And yet if there's a display technology that's truly cinematic, it's surely the projector. At its best, nothing comes close to the sheer visual spectacle. And surely visual spectacle is a big part of modern gaming. Take a long-term view and projectors are far more cost effective than you might think, too. So, here's why you should consider a projector and how to do it right.

Big and bloody beautiful. That's the first thing to appreciate about projectors or rather the image they produce. It's the sheer scale that marks them out. Even the largest TVs are puny compared to a mediocre projector setup. In that sense, it's the only truly cinematic technology.

Then there's the nature and quality of the image. Personally, I find LCD technology tends to introduce a certain artificiality to proceedings. Admittedly, that's more an issue with HDTVs, which tend to have over saturated 'VA' type panels that major on visual zing at the cost of colour accuracy, than PC monitors.

Either way, you might think the question of what looks more 'natural' somewhat tangential in the context of mowing down zombies, casting spells or hyperjumping to the next quadrant.

See that puny thing bottom right? It's a 30-inch ubertron...

I'd counter with the immersion argument. Good games ought to transport you in time and space. It's that suspension of disbelief thing in part. So, why look upon virtual worlds through a small window when they can fill nearly your entire field of view.

Actually, that sounds a bit like virtual reality and there's no doubt VR headsets could make the immersion-and-scale argument for projectors look a little limp in future. But for now VR is an emerging and somewhat unproven technology.

In the meantime, here's what you need to know about projectors for games.

Projector tech: DLP versus LCD
These are the two dominant projector techs now that LCOS has proven pretty much stillborn. Really broadly, here's how they compare. DLP uses a bunch of tiny mirrors to reflect light through a spinning colour wheel and the result has historically been the best contrast of any projector type.

LCD, meanwhile, involves shining light through a trio of primary coloured LCD panels and has typically delivered better colour accuracy and pixel definition. However, both are very mature technologies and have largely converged. Yes, DLP still has the best contrast, but its advantage is nothing like as dramatic as once is was.

1080p DLP projectors like this BenQ effort are cheaper than you might think...

As things currently stand, 1080p is where it's at regarding resolution. 4K beamers do exist, but they are exotically expensive and will probably remain so for a few more years.

What about the 'rainbow effect'?
The one major downside to DLP technology is the dreaded 'rainbow effect'. It's a consequence of the fact that DLP images are created by shining light through a fast spinning wheel made up of coloured segments.

In theory, the wheel spins fast enough for the alternating primary-coloured images to combine, as the viewer sees it, into a single full-colour display. In practice, some people can catch a glimpse of the individual images 'separating out' into their primary colours. If you haven't noticed it before, try moving your eyes quickly across the image and you might just see it.

LCD vs DLP is now a finely nuanced contest. For the record, this is LCD

Long story short, your mileage will vary according both your sensitivity and the spec of the projector. DLP models with faster wheels and more colour segments will reduce the problem. For the record, this doesn't apply to LCD projectors at all.

Room size, setup and optics
Next up, room size. The good news is that you do not need a large room to make good use of a projector. Several 'short throw' models are available that will allow for a very large image even in conspicuously confined spaces.

Where things get complicated are the location and installation of the projector. A permanent installation hanging from the ceiling or attached to the opposite wall is usually best but not always viable. Tables and stands are workable alternatives, but there's a degree of planning involved depending on the room in question.

Getting on for a decade old, 1,500 hours on the lamp, still going strong

In an ideal world, if the projector isn't mounted high on a wall or ceiling it should be situated in front of you. That way you don't have to worry about seating positions, heads and arms blocking the beam and all that jazz. Again, a short-throw projector can help with this.

If you start to get serious about projectors, you'll also need to learn a little about optics and features like lens shift and how they can impact on setup.

Do projectors play nicely with a mouse and keyboard?
On a related note, the keyboard and mouse thing can be tricky with projectors. It's ye olde sitting room compatibility problem.

Console-style game pads are obviously more flexible in that setting. But mouse and keyboard can be done – especially wireless examples of the species

Screen surface
You also do not need a special screen surface or even a dedicated screen at all. Pretty much any old wall will do so long as its white.

There are actually projectors that can compensate for off-white walls, too, though I can't say I've tried 'em. What I can say is that projectors are surprisingly forgiving regards surface imperfections. Using a plain wall also means you can maximise the images size and not have it limited to the size of screen you buy.

What about ambient lighting conditions?
This is the biggie, the main problem with projectors. They work best in low ambient light conditions. You can get projectors with uber powerful lamps, but the result is never as good as using a projector in low ambient light.

A space sim on the big screen is pretty much the definition of atmospheric, which is ironic...

Luckily in the UK it's dark 20 hours a day, nine months of the year. But seriously, I suspect most of us do most of our gaming in the evening, so light conditions oughtn't be a deal breaker.

So, an all-purpose display tech for your PC a projector obviously ain't. But I think many would be surprised just how much use you can get out of it, espeically when you consider that...

Most of the images you see are my current makeshift kitchen install. The projector-powered gaming dungeon is nearing completion...

Projectors are fab for movies
Slightly off topic, but projectors absolutely blow every other display away when it comes to watching movies. Don't argue, this is a double-blind, peer-reviewed, placebo-controlled fact.

Point is, you'll get more out of the thing than just gaming on a huge scale.

What kind of games work best with projectors?
Tricky question. I probably wouldn't bother with hair-trigger online shooters on a projector. That aside, I'm tempted to say anything goes. Adventure games take on an epic scale on a projector. Driving games become so much more dramatic. And RTS'ers like Total War: Rome II gain a thoroughly atmospheric new dimension painted nine-foot large across a wall, that's for sure.

Even strategy games take on a cinematic vibe...

One thing I haven't tried properly is a space sim. I fired up Elite: Dangerous for a very quick raz and it suddenly struck me that it would be stunning on a projector using a head tracker. Not clear exactly how you'd set that up, but I'm pretty sure it would be worth it.

And for the record, I haven't found input lag to be an issue with the projectors I've used. My ancient triple-LCD Epson is super snappy.

Stereoscopic 3D and high refresh
I've never been a big fan of stereoscopic 3D. But if I was going for it, a projector would be my weapon of choice. The grander scale is part of the reason. But maybe a few 3D movies has conditioned me to be a bit more accepting of wearing silly glasses in a cinematic context.

That said, one genuinely useful technological corollary that follows from 3D projectors is high refresh rates. Affordable DLP projectors (we'll come to pricing shortly) that support 120Hz refresh are widely available. The snag is that there are usually resolution limitations at 120Hz – ie you're limited to 720p due to the use of an HDMI connection.

I'm planning on rebooting my driving-game habit in big-screen style

As HDMI 2.0 becomes more common, this problem will fade away. But take extra care with the specifications if you're trying to combine high refresh gaming with a projector.

How much does all this cost?
Less than you probably think. You can get a decent 1080p DLP projector for under £500 / $600. As it happens, I've been using the same 1080p beamer for eight years now – all on the original bulb.

Bigger is simply more beautiful...

The technology simply doesn't date very fast and while 4K tech is coming, I reckon you could buy one today and get at least five years great service out of it. So that's roughly £100 / $100 a year in return for truly spectacular visuals. In that context, who cares if a projector is a somewhat occasional display.

What should I buy, exactly?
This takes me a little out of my comfort zone. I haven't regularly reviewed projectors for a few years, so I'm not super confident what the best buys are right now. But something like a BenQ W0170 for just £489 certainly looks pretty bloody tempting.

- Projectors look amazing
- You don't need a big room
- You don't need a special screen
- They're cheaper than you might think...
- the fact they are a somewhat occasional display is OK

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