Turn Your Driveway into a Digital Drive-In

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Just because the outdoor drive-in movie complex has largely disappeared from American suburbs doesn’t mean you can’t set up your own theater—in the driveway. You may already own some of the components, and audience members don’t necessarily have to be seated in a convertible. Just add lawn chairs or beach blankets.

Topping the equipment list is a projector, source player, speakers and screen. There are battery-powered portable versions of the first three, but their maximum light and sound outputs are better suited for an intimate audience. So, electrical outlets on the exterior of your house or in the garage and a heavy-duty extension cord or two are important considerations if you expect to put on a show for more than a few.

Entertaining a Crowd

Your best source for movies will be Blu-ray Discs or DVDs. In fact, considering the type of grind-house schlock typically seen in a drive-in theater, you’ll find a deeper selection of titles on DVD. Several all-in-one DVD player/projectors are available from Epson including the MovieMate 62 Projector, Powerlite Presenter Projector and MovieMate 85HD Projector. The 62 offers a resolution of 540p and brightness of 2,000 lumens, while the Presenter and 85HD, 720p and 2,500 lumens. All these projectors have built-in stereo speakers (2x 10 Watts), but they also each sport a coaxial digital audio (S/PDIF) output. So, if you want the movie to compete with crickets and bullfrogs, you may want to add a pair of compatible powered speakers such as the Roland MA-15D 4” 30W 2-Way Desktop Monitors in black or blue/natural wood. (The former matches the night; the latter, the trees.) The speakers should be up front with the screen, so I’d recommend an ample-length S/PDIF RCA Male to RCA Male Digital Cable such as a 20-footer from Hosa Technology.

Projecting from an iPad/iPhone/iPod touch

If the content you want to show is loaded on an iOS device, there are all-in-one projector/speaker docks that let you dock and project. The Optoma Technology Video Projector and Speaker System for iPhone and iPod contains built-in stereo speakers (2x 8W) and the whole unit weighs only 2.2 lb. (Note: the dock does not accommodate an iPad.) The projector’s LED light source lasts 20,000 hours—essentially the life of the projector—but at 50 lumens, the brightness is a fraction of the Epson models above. Though you can project an image up to 120 inches, under a full moon 60 inches is more practical.

A projector-dock that will accommodate an iPad is the WowWee Cinemin Slice Pico Projector. At 16 lumens, the brightness is best suited for use inside a pup tent or in close proximity to the side of your house. The projector requires an electrical outlet, so better bring out an extension cord, too.

If dim lighting cramps your style, but you still want to source content from an iPad, iPad 2, iPhone or iPod, your best bet is outputting the signal from the device’s dock connector using Apple’s Digital AV Adapter. The adapter has an HDMI output. So equipped, you can use any projector with an HDMI input and have brightness to spare.

Projecting from a USB Stick or Memory Card

Since some projectors accept a USB storage device and/or SD card and build in the media player firmware for decoding particular video, photo and music formats, you may not need to connect a DVD player or iPad at all. The Boy Scout dictum of being prepared pays off here, since you must make sure to do the preliminary work of copying the show from a computer to removable memory before venturing outside.

In terms of equipment, the AAXA Technologies M2 Micro Projector reads SDHC and USB devices and is compatible with MP4, AVI, JPG and MP3 files, among others. There’s even 1GB of internal memory for storing all or part of the show in the projector itself. Alternatively, you can plug in a source player including a computer (and its ability to decode virtually any media format) using the projector’s HDMI, VGA, composite video and stereo inputs. The projector’s long-lasting 110 Lumen LED light source should be sufficiently bright to illuminate a 100-inch image in the dark. However, you’ll probably want to supplement the 1W speakers by connecting external speakers such as Sony’s SRS-M50/BLK Portable Speakers to the projector’s 3.5mm audio-out jack. A similar projector is the BenQ Joybee GP1 Mini Projector. It contains a USB port but no memory card slot.

Screens

While a white garage door or bed sheet could serve as a screen in a pinch, there are better eye-pleasers which are both more reflective and provide a uniformly smooth surface. The Epsons shine brightly on the Epson Duet Ultra Portable Projector Screen. A good target for the Optoma Technology Video Projector and Speaker System for iPhone and iPod is any one of a number of  projector screens. Keep in mind that with any of these screens, you may have to improvise with rocks, hooks or tape to keep them stationary, especially in a breeze.

Enhanced Sound

For external sound, take advantage of the Bluetooth connectivity built into iOS devices, netbooks and notebooks. Considering that the movie’s soundtrack is more sensibly placed coming from the screen in front rather than in the projector in back, why not pair your source player wirelessly to a portable speaker or speakers? The Bluetooth radio frequency has a range of up to about 30 feet, and you don’t have to worry about people tripping over cables or blocking the sound if they stand up. Among your choices are the Jawbone Jambox (in various colors), the iHome iDM12 Rechargeable Portable Bluetooth Speaker System and the Creative Labs Inspire T12 Bluetooth Wireless 2.0 Speaker System.

If you don’t want to disturb the neighbors, you could equip the audience with wireless headphones in the form of the Califone 4-User Wireless Listening System.

All-in-One Inflatable Kit

A unique system for setting up your drive-in is the Sima XL-PRO Inflatable Indoor/Outdoor Home Theater Kit. The kit contains an LCD projector with LED illumination (remote included), a pair of 5W amplified speakers, a 72-inch inflatable screen, two sets of pontoons for raising the screen height, 120V inflation pump, audio cables, screen repair kit and nylon carrying case. You do need to bring along a source player such as a portable DVD player with A/V outputs. The projector has component video, composite video and stereo inputs. 

Supporting Accessories

Sometimes, failing to bring out the most mundane accessories can sink the show. So, don’t forget a couple of extension cords, a flashlight for the usher or the projectionist. The best buzz comes from a happily entertained drive-in movie audience—not from bloodthirsty, hovering insects.