I was recently given the opportunity to take a trip down to Austin, TX, and visit the headquarters of projection screens manufacturer Screen Innovations (SI) to review the company’s Black Diamond Zero Edge and Black Diamond Motorized screens. Once I got there, however, I found that there was so much more to SI than I had realized.
Ryan Gustafson, SI’s president and chief innovator, began building screens in his garage in the late at night after working all day at his retail sales job at Austin’s A&B TV in 2004. This initiative came after Ryan purchased his first LCD projector, the Sony VPLVW10HT. In his efforts to maximize its abilities, he began building screens and testing them with the projector, with the goal of getting the best picture possible. Eventually, his screen designs became so advanced that A&B began selling Ryan’s screens in its store. Within a short time, Ryan branched out and opened a facility of his own in Austin, where he was able to expand and grow his business by roughly 40 percent every year since.
As the grandson of an inventor, Gustafson is a naturally inventive person. He not only fashioned the screens himself, but he is also the brains behind much of the equipment that is used in manufacturing Screen Innovations products, many of which I’m told are unique to SI.
For instance, Gustafson and his team claim to be the only ones in the industry that design and manufacture their own extrusions. In fact, they have developed the only 3.5-inch aluminum tube extrusion that has less than 1/16 inches of deflection over 16 feet, as well as the only 4-inch aluminum tube extrusion that has less than 1/16 inches of deflection over 22 feet. These capabilities not only allow for more versatility in the size of a screen, but also result in less weight and bulk, which lowers freight costs.
I was also shown how SI uses snaps rather than screws to lock its screens into place and how the company developed an automated snap machine to efficiently support this method. It also has developed a 20x30-foot CNC robot that can be programmed to cut a screen to any shape.
“We use the latest FEA [finite element analysis] software and spend countless hours of development time perfecting shapes that break the mold of what is possible in projection screens,” Gustafson stated.
It seems like Gustafson’s brain is constantly churning out new ways to perfect his screens and advance the two-piece projection category. He shared about how he came up with a solution to secure the Black Diamond Motorized projection screen to its housing. As the story goes, they spent three and a half years developing Black Diamond Motorized, and in particular, ways to get the screen to lay flat. The answer dawned on him one night while he was struggling to get rubber bands out of his daughter Taylor’s hair.
“We needed to solve a problem we were having with deflection when we were mounting the screen to the wing,” Gustafson explained. “You see, the wing has natural deflection, which was allowing the screen to get soft in the middle and tight at the edges. We tried several solutions, but they allowed the edges to get soft while the middle was tight; there was seemingly no way around the issue. One night, as I tried to extract a tangled band from Taylor’s hair, I had an inspiration. The next day, I brought a handful of her hair bands to the factory and went to into the lab. We laid out the screen, punched holes along the top of it and put the hair bands through the holes. The hair bands equalized the screen tension perfectly, which eliminated the need for 92-, 100-, 106-, 110-, 120-, or 133-inch screens to each require a unique wing that would counteract deflection.”
With Taylor’s hair bands in place, the edges and middle of the screen were both tight, which solved the problem. Now, instead of Taylor’s hair bands, SI uses ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) bungees that are made for this purpose.
All of the Screen Innovations fixed projection screens use microfiber frames instead of velvet, because microfiber attracts less dust and is easier to maintain. Black Diamond screens feature laminate screens that are water resistant and fingerprint proof, allowing dust and other contaminants to wipe right off. In comparison, screens with sprayed-on surfaces lose portions of their optical finish when they are touched or cleaned, which ultimately deteriorates the picture quality.
As I reviewed the line, I wanted to keep as many constants as I could to get an accurate comparison between the screens. I used a non-calibrated Epson Powerlite Cinema 6010 projector, stationed 12 feet from the screen and in the “cinema” setting for each screen I reviewed. I also used the same scenes from Disney Pixar’s Wall-E and The Amazing Spiderman as my demo movies for each of the screens I reviewed.
Lunar 4K 0.85-Gain Projection Screen
The Lunar 4K 0.85-gain grey screen was developed to create deeper blacks and to work in an environment where there would be soft ambient light. I viewed it in complete darkness and also flanked by two 75-watt floor lamps. One of the most common misconceptions about the Lunar Grey screen is that it does not improve contrast, but instead improves the black levels at the expense of the white levels, for which our eyes will compensate. The black levels were deep and created a great contrast with most of the other colors. On the contrary, I noticed that there was noise around the white images, mostly around wording. While viewing Wall-E, one of the first scenes has a large blue screen with white writing and there was almost a haze around the wording, which distracted my eye. I, personally, would not choose this screen option for my clients.
The Gamma Maestro is an acoustically transparent woven screen material that does not absorb ambient light the way a gray screen would. It is at its best in a darker environment, although it will still perform in very minimal light. It has a very warm, neutral and inviting hue that it adds to the image. While all of the color is rich and defined, I found that reds, grays, and blues were particularly heightened. The noise around white images were not present in this screen, the wording from the same scene in Wall-E was crisp and clear.
Solar 4K 1.3 Gain
Of all the white/grey screens that Screen Innovations offers, this one was by far my favorite. The image was flawless, with tight colors, deep black levels and crisp, noiseless white details. In a darker environment, I found that the quality of the image was comparable to the Black Diamond. In a particular scene from The Amazing Spiderman, there is a close up of Lizard’s face where he is transforming from Lizard to human and you can actually see the scales flaking away from his face. The picture was so pristine that you could even see the outline of the contact lenses the actor wore to create the Lizard’s eyes. It was an incredible visual. This would be the other screen outside of the Black Diamond that I would most often offer to my clients.
Black Diamond Zero Edge 1.4 Gain
Prior to Black Diamond, two-piece projection was primarily used in dark environments, not because we wanted to, but because we had to. Now with Black Diamond, a screen can look just as good in ambient light as it does in a dark room. Unlike high-gain screens, however, Black Diamond rejects ambient light; therefore, the onscreen image is not diluted.
The technology behind Black Diamond allows it to reject ambient light coming from both the vertical and horizontal plane. The only time this doesn’t work is when a light source is coming from behind the projector. For example, if you have a west-facing window located directly behind the projector at 5:00 p.m., you’d probably want to cover that window, just as you would with any other display.
Black Diamond has been professionally measured to improve contrast 900 percent over a matte white 1.1 gain screen. In my opinion, the black levels in this screen provide a depth to the image like no other screen. Even 2D images seem to appear 3D. I thought that the scene from The Amazing Spiderman couldn’t look any better than it did on the Solar screen, but the colors provided by Black Diamond are even more vivid and bright, and the lines clean and distinct. Black Diamond Zero Edge is also the only screen that can incorporate an LED lighting kit for around the border of the screen. LED lighting enhances the color images on the screen and relaxes the viewer’s irises, allowing brighter content to be viewed in a darker room for longer periods of time without eye strain.
Black Diamond Motorized
The Black Diamond Motorized screen allows you to reach a client base who just does not have the space or budget for a dedicated home theater room. It is the world’s first “rollable TV” as the Screen Innovations team would call it. It provides integrators the ability to put a TV where it should go, not where it has to go. For instance, I have a large clientele in New York City whose walls are all windows. This screen can be installed right above the window and dropped down when they are ready to watch TV. The installation is simple because SI uses the same aluminum brackets for mounting all motorized screens in its line. It will likely take an integrator the same amount of time to install Black Diamond Motorized as it does to mount a flat-panel TV.
The Future of SI
The team at SI also just launched a new technology called FlexGlass, which is a rear-projection material that offers all of the benefits of rigid optical panels with the added benefit of custom and curve capabilities that can only be provided by flexible screen materials. FlexGlass eliminates projector hot-spotting and, from what I saw, has zero sparkle. It seems this would be an ideal choice for multiple-projector, edge-blending, and short-throw projector applications that are often needed in commercial, digital signage, and some higher end residential settings.
Ryan Gustafson and the team at Screen Innovations are always experimenting to find the next technology. The company seeks feedback not only from their team, but also from dealers, who are the keys to SI’s success.
“Our greatest reward is when our dealers are profitable and successful,” Ryan said.