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A projector slides off into the sunset

Video killed the radio star, as the song goes, and now it has claimed another victim: the humble slide projector. Multimedia producer Jeff Janer remembers his father fumbling around in the closet to extract his projector and boxes of slides. Assembling the inevitable family vacation show "was very painstaking," Janer recalled. "It was never very convenient."

Now all Dad or Mom has to do is pop a cassette into the VCR, and the priceless memories cascade off the family television screen. In the corporate world, the Microsoft software program PowerPoint supplanted slide pitches almost a decade ago.

Carousel, Ektagraphic, Ektapro: RIP.

With zero fanfare, Eastman Kodak Co., the principal US manufacturer of slide projectors, has told its important customers that it will cease production of its once-popular lines in June 2004. "The handwriting has been on the wall," said Merri-Lou McKeever, Kodak's product manager for slide projectors. "In the past three years, the decline has been very fast." Twenty years ago, Kodak sold almost 300,000 slide projectors; this year it will sell 18,000, she says.

Kodak's chief executive, Daniel Carp, has announced plans to de-emphasize the company's traditional business lines and to invest in digital technologies, a move that has angered some investors.

"Kodak dominated this market for years and years," said Robert Moisan, general manager of Newtonville Camera and Video. "It's sad to see them go." Retailers say Kodachrome and Ektachrome slide films, still widely used by professional photographers, will remain on sale.

For the over-30 generation, the disappearance of the slide projector is the end of an era. There will be no more blissful breaks for grade schoolers while the hygiene teacher tries to pry the anatomy slide out of the molded plastic carousel; no more evenings at Uncle Elmer's savoring the smell of smoldering celluloid as he lingers on that special view of the Los Angeles skyline.

"People are very passionate about slide projectors," Kodak's McKeever said. "There is talk around here of having a burial party when the last one gets made."

Slide projector sales have gone the way of conventional film, now being supplanted by images from digital cameras. "By the end of the decade, film sales will be down to almost nothing," said Scott Farber, a buyer for Hunt's Photo and Video, which has five stores in New England. Three years ago, Hunt's sold about 85 slide projectors. So far this year, it has sold 22. "It's not a huge Christmas item," Farber said.

Now institutional users, like schools and universities, have to deal with the expensive transition to digital projection. "A lot of MIT classrooms still have slide projectors in them," said Philip Greenspun, a photography expert who teaches in the Institute's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. A computer projector for a university classroom costs about $10,000, he said.

"It's expensive, and there is a subtle loss of quality, like going from long-playing records to compact discs."

The transition for the consumer will be equally expensive and cumbersome, according to Greenspun. "You can't get a decent digital projector for under $1,000, and you need a computer to drive it," he said. "Then you need to spend three months of your life learning how to use Microsoft Windows, not to mention investing in an Internet connection and a color printer."

Companies like Epson, Canon, and InFocus dominate the digital projector market. Kodak introduced a line of digital projectors several years ago but has discontinued them. A Kodak spokesman, Charles Smith, says Kodak has no plans to reenter this business.

Most imaging experts seem to agree that the move away from slides to digital imagery compromises picture quality. "Digital projection is easier and ultimately will be less costly," Janer said. "But you sacrifice image quality. People have become conditioned to looking at lousy images on computers."

"The reason people still shoot slides is because they give a vivid color that has not been replaced by digital," Farber said. "The color you get from a slide is unmatched by any other medium."

Naomi Miller, a Boston University architecture historian, has been monitoring the slides-vs.-digital-image debate on various computer message boards. "Everyone thinks PowerPoint is going to be so fabulous for art history -- I think that's insane," she said. Miller, who is retiring this year, began her career showing large-format black-and-white slides to students through a lantern projector. "Those huge projectors were infinitely better for art historians," she said. "I would be happy to show you sometime."

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