Seeing a movie outdoors used to be pretty simple. Drive a bit, pay at the entrance gate, find a parking space, and wait for the towering images to flicker into view. Some nights you’d even get a double feature. But finding a drive-in isn’t easy these days. Just 370 remain in the U.S., down from a peak of nearly 5,000 in the 1950s. What to do if you yearn to experience the cinema outside? Create it yourself. For that, you need five elements: the power to drive the whole setup, a video source, a projector, a screen and a sound system. Here’s how I put together a cheap, portable screening for a group of friends over the summer.
Plugging your projector and video source into AC power will give you a better quality experience. But a battery-operated setup is more convenient. You can run power from an adapter connected to a car lighter or to a battery-powered worksite radio (see Sound).
If you have AC power, try to borrow a presentation-style projector from your favorite PowerPoint wizard. For my ultra-portable setup, I chose the $150 Microvision SHOWWX laser projector. It operates on batteries and connects directly to my iPad (adapters for other devices are available as well).
Some projectors have flash-memory slots, but connecting any device that can output a video file should work. I used my iPad because it’s easy to transfer movies to it, the battery and storage capacity are good, and you can buy simple video-out cables for it. If your movie is on a DVD, you’ll first need to rip the disc to a compatible format like MPEG-4 using software such as Handbrake, a free, cross-platform video converter. (Note that DVDs sold for home use are not licensed for public exhibition).
Try a white wall, a bed sheet or a white vinyl tablecloth. Aim for a screen width of about one sixth the distance to the back of the audience. Once you’ve got the screen, the next challenge is suspending it. I popped grommets into each corner of the tablecloth, securing the top to a pair of trees and the bottom to tent stakes.
Old-fashioned drive-ins had the same sound choices you face: amplified or transmitted. You could plug into a portable guitar amp or a worksite radio, a ruggedized boombox designed to be heard over the din of machinery, such as the DeWalt DC012 ($160 at Amazon). But if you’ve got nearby neighbors, you’ll want to replicate the quieter old tune-in sound systems by using a low-power FM transmitter. Use one that’s capable of pumping out at least 10 milliwatts, which should get you a 50-foot range, such as the Ramsey FM10C ($45 at Amazon). Some models, including the C. Crane ($35; C. Crane), can be hacked to increase their output. If your soldering skills aren’t great, any electronics repair shop should be able to put one together quickly and cheaply.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.