Shop Talk: CEOs search for the right technology

Lightweight and affordable, LCD projectors can maximize the effectiveness of computer-generated presentations

His patience wearing very thin, Gregg Sandberg watched as the salesman struggled to demonstrate the liquid crystal display projector. "That could be me," he remembers thinking. With a queasy stomach, he envisioned himself and his colleagues fumbling with equipment at a presentation as prospective clients grew irritable and lost confidence in his firm's ability to deliver.

Sandberg, systems manager for Boston-based Irma S. Mann, Strategic Marketing, had been charged with purchasing an LCD projector for the 15-year-old $6.4-million marketing and advertising firm. For the past several years, the company's staff had used Microsoft PowerPoint to create slides of ISM's statistical charts and print and on-line travel ads to show to travel and tourism companies like the Hilton and Sonesta hotel chains. Until 1997 they had used an overhead projector in tandem with a laptop computer, which uses an LCD panel to reveal images on its screen, to project those computer images onto walls or hanging screens. But the setup was cumbersome and required near darkness to be effective--conditions that the company found far from optimum.

That March, when CEO Gary Leopold learned about LCD projectors--portable machines that combine the functions of overhead projectors and LCD panels--he authorized his staff to rent units on an as-needed basis. The staff responded enthusiastically to the lightweight, easy-to-use technology. Equipment setup required no expertise. To project images--say, PowerPoint slides--from a laptop through an LCD projector, the user simply had to string one cable between the projector and the computer, switch both units on, boot up, and tap the right key.

When they started renting projectors, Leopold's people were making only a few presentations annually, so the $400-per-day cost was affordable. But as the company grew and travel to and from clients' headquarters increased, Leopold became convinced that it was time to consider a purchase.

The staff had been accommodating themselves to whatever machine the rental company gave them, but even under good circumstances, Leopold says, "it's always Murphy's Law when you travel." Owning a projector would allow for standardizing procedures, minimizing technological glitches, and eliminating apprehensions about deliveries and pickups.

By early 1998, when Leopold asked Sandberg to see what he could find, Sandberg had heard plenty about his coworkers' on-the-road rental mishaps and had already formed a good idea of what kind of projector would be best for the company.

Brightness was his biggest concern. LCD systems generating less than 400 or 500 ANSI lumens--the standard measure of brightness--are adequate for projecting black-and-white Excel images, in a darkened room. But the multicolored PowerPoint slides that make up a typical ISM presentation look washed out and dull with less than 600 lumens. And because the reps present in rooms of all sizes, some of which can't be darkened, ISM needed to buy the brightest projector it could afford.

Also, Sandberg worried about resolution, or image quality. Lower resolution limits how much of an image can be displayed. At one ill-fated presentation, for example, an ISM rep was using a rented 640x480-pixel LCD projector to which he'd connected his laptop, which had 800x600-pixel resolution. The unfortunate result of that mismatch? The projector lopped off the right-hand and bottom edges of each slide. To ensure compatibility and avoid such embarrassing situations, Sandberg sought an LCD projector that would support resolutions of both 800x600 (known as SVGA, or Super Video Graphics Array) and 640x480 (VGA, or Video Graphics Array).

In addition to meeting his criteria for brightness and resolution, the projector that Sandberg sought would have to be lightweight and fit in an airplane overhead-storage compartment.

As a renter, Sandberg had been pleased with the service from Adtech Systems, an audiovisual dealership in Wayland, Mass., but he was hoping to make the purchase from a dealer located closer to Boston. At the same time he wanted a dealer that could offer the expertise that comes from focusing only on audiovisual-equipment sales, as Adtech did.

From the slim pickings his Internet search produced, Sandberg was glad to note that at least one dealer was located close by, "right across the [Charles] river," he says, in Cambridge, Mass. He visited the dealer, and that's where he experienced the presentation snafu firsthand. The hapless salesman, who eventually abandoned him for another client, did finally get the projector to work. Too late, Sandberg says. "It stressed me out."