Breakout Year: New theatre technologies at CinemaCon expand the moviegoing experience

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Technology

It was literally a breakout year for technology at April’s fifth annual CinemaCon in Las Vegas. Images were breaking out from the traditional front screen and extending out along the side walls to the back of the theatre. The “show” was moving out of the auditorium and onto video walls and monitors in the lobby. Soundtracks were continuing their advance into surround environments utilizing ceiling and higher side speakers. And laser projection, until recently considered out of reach for most exhibitors, was breaking through with a more economically feasible retrofit alternative.

But perhaps the biggest breakout was the introduction of Dolby’s new High Dynamic Range technology, branded as Dolby Vision. Utilizing dual 4K Christie laser projectors, the system produces an exceptional contrast ratio (one million to one, compared to the usual 2,000 to one) with inky blacks and colors that really pop. In an explanatory session in Caesars Palace, Dolby senior VP of cinema Doug Darrow displayed a white circle against a “black” background as seen in current digital-projection setups, then switched to the same illustration in Dolby Vision. The dramatic improvement in black and white contrast drew audible gasps from the audience.

Preceding the session was the first-ever screening of a feature film in Dolby Vision: Disney and Pixar’s new Inside Out, which takes place largely inside a young girl’s brain and uses a riot of colors in depicting that imaginative terrain. The film’s director Pete Docter, production designer Ralph Eggleston and cinematographer/color grader Kim White later extolled the creative benefits of the new format. Docter said he was “pretty blown away” by the screening, and noted that the format’s visual impact “gives us another tool to emphasize emotion.” Eggleston felt his palette had been expanded: “Now I can imagine scenes in darkness.”

The CinemaCon crowd voiced strong approval of the new Star Wars trailer in Dolby Vision, and were also treated to a dazzling 3D test sequence from the 2010 film TRON: Legacy. Dolby Vision will debut in theatres with Disney’s sci-fi fantasy Tomorrowland on May 22, followed by Inside Out on June 19.

Dolby Vision will be part of a larger branding effort called Dolby Cinema, which also incorporates Dolby Atmos immersive sound and striking auditorium design. Prior to CinemaCon, Dolby announced a deal with AMC Theatres to roll out Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime, new installations also incorporating power reclining seats with transducers that vibrate with the action onscreen. AMC expects to have up to four locations in operation this month, and 50 locations up and running by December 2018.

Also making a big impression at CinemaCon were the initiatives by Barco and Korea’s CJ Group to extend the picture viewing area beyond the rectangular screen facing the audience. Barco introduced its “Cinema Barco” concept at CinemaCon last year, enthusiastically touted by its new hire, “CinemaVangelist” Ted Schilowitz; with additional screens on the left and right side of the auditorium, the company showed a visually striking short from Maze Runner director Wes Ball and a triptych of footage from the Burning Man festival. This year, Barco used its Audience Entertainment interactive technology to let the attending press choose from a selection of Escape-ready shorts; the winner was a three-screen movie called “S.F. Noir,” a mood piece depicting San Francisco street scenes. The real showstopper was YouTube star Devin Super Tramp’s enveloping video of daredevil extreme-sports action, heavy on the bungee jumping. And the session concluded with a generous three-screen segment from a Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga concert recorded outdoors at the Grand Palace in Brussels, which Barco said would play in Escape venues this summer.

During CinemaCon, Barco announced a five-year, multi-title agreement with 20th Century Fox to release films in the Barco Escape format, beginning with the September debut of Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. The original 2014 The Maze Runner was the first film to release in Barco Escape, with approximately 10 minutes of footage in the format. It debuted at five Barco Escape Cinemark locations in the U.S. and two Barco Escape Kinepolis theatres in Belgium. For The Scorch Trials, Barco is targeting 25 locations (including in China), and Fox is aiming for 20 minutes of the film to be converted into the format.

Barco also has a multi-title deal with Posse Films, which will commence with Racer’s Heart, a three-screen movie centered on NASCAR Hall of Fame member Bobby Allison. Barco Escape will also be the format of choice for The Hell Within, a horror film set in the jungles of Brazil, produced by Slash, the rock guitarist from Guns N’ Roses. And famed producer Jerry Bruckheimer has joined the Barco Escape advisory board and will develop a new project for the three-screen format.

The “wraparound” cinema concept is nothing new for South Korea: CJ Group’s 270-degree ScreenX technology was created in 2012 and is operating on more than 75 screens in 44 locations in that country. CJ hosted demos of ScreenX a short distance from CinemaCon at the AMC Town Square 18, with CJ 4DPlex and ScreenX CEO Byung Hwan Choi in attendance. The most striking thing about CJ’s approach is that the images take up the entirety of the gray side walls of the theatre, all the way to the back row. The program included snippets of ads for the likes of Lexus, Red Bull and Ferrero Rocher chocolates; repurposed trailers from Mad Max: Fury Road and Insurgent; a handsome and impactful fantasy of a little girl creating magic in a small town; and a test film called “Screenscape” created by Pixar artist Andrew Jimenez. The event also included the world premiere of footage from Odysseo, an upcoming film of what is billed as the world’s biggest touring production, a marriage of stagecraft and equestrian arts utilizing 70 horses that was created by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle.

This “Beyond the Frame” system uses an HP server and a Christie GS laser phosphor projector, and ScreenX execs said it took 16 days to remodel the AMC auditorium for the demos. The enveloping visuals were effective, at one point creating the illusion that the theatre itself was moving as the image onscreen took a sharp dip. With “4D” motion effects gaining traction in theatres, the potential seems to be there for the new forms of immersion demonstrated by CJ and Barco to catch on too, especially as an added value for advertisers in the pre-show.

Today, the word “immersive” doesn’t just apply to the visual realm but to the aural environment too. Just prior to CinemaCon, Dolby announced that more than 1,000 screens worldwide have been installed or are committed to be equipped with its immersive Dolby Atmos sound platform. The total number of announced feature films mixed in Dolby Atmos has now surpassed 275. Barco’s competing format, Auro 11.1, now has more than 550 screens committed or installed, and over 100 films released. At CinemaCon, Barco debuted AuroMax®, a new system that incorporates support for the placement of audio “objects” in any immersive mix, utilizing rendering technology from Iosono (the pioneering audio company purchased by Barco last year). The announcement anticipates the creation of a standardized distribution format for immersive cinema sound.

A new entrant in the “3D sound” arena is veteran audiovisual and automotive company Harman, whose brands include Lexicon and JBL. At CinemaCon, Harman’s Lexicon division introduced the QLI-32 Quantum Logic Immersion cinema processor, designed to deliver up to 32 channels of surround sound in professional cinema applications. The QLI-32 interfaces with a theatre’s media source and existing cinema processor to provide a multi-dimensional listening experience with left, center, right, surround, rear and height channels via Harman’s proprietary Quantum Logic Immersion surround-processing technology.

As Dan Saenz, Harman Professional’s business segment manager for installed and cinema sound, explained, “The Lexicon QLI-32 uses exclusive signal-processing techniques to actively analyze the acoustical information in the audio mix and recreate a full three-dimensional sonic environment with width, depth and height by identifying and positioning objects in the sound field–all without adding elements to the original mix. Because the QLI-32 works with existing audio systems, installation costs are reduced and any stereo or multi-channel content can be made immersive.”

John Batliner, VP of worldwide sales at Crown Audio, amplified, “You don’t need special content. Every mix is already a Quantum Logic mix.”

Quantum Logic installations use side speakers for height effects, rather than ceiling-mounted speakers. “The reason for that is how you perceive sound,” Batliner explained. “If you go way back, there was mono sound, and both ears were getting the same signal. We were able to make that better by going to stereo, with sound from different locations. When you go to height channels, if you go with an overhead speaker, you’re creating more monophonic content. The way to make it more enveloping is actually to use side heights. I can still create something directly overhead with a phantom overhead sound, but if I want to create ambience where I want it to sound like a concert hall, I’ll use side height speakers to create that experience.” Batliner also noted that installation of ceiling speakers is more cumbersome and expensive, and can run up against compliance issues.

Quantum Logic was pioneered by Dr. Gilbert Soulodre, president of Camden Labs and research partner to Harman. “Gil has done 35 years of research,” Batliner said. “It’s all based around psychoacoustics, how we perceive sounds and what are the best locations related to that.”

Dr. Soulodre commandeered the demo room at CinemaCon, playing an excerpt from a 1958 concert by Frank Sinatra recorded with just two microphones and showing how the sound elements can be separated and reconstructed into multi-channel audio with Quantum Logic. The same technique was applied to a 1963 recording of The Beatles. Then it was time for all-out immersive audio in impressive remixed sequences from Ratatouille and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Is there room in the marketplace for another 3D audio competitor? Batliner offered a resounding yes. “The stats are pretty staggering. Worldwide there are 60,000 3D video screens and 1,500 immersive audio screens. As an audio manufacturer, we’re like: That ratio is awful. We gotta do something to change that. There are some other great immersive audio systems on the market today—we’re not trying to compete with those, we just want to grow the immersive pot. Vanilla is out there in the ice cream shop; strawberry should be there too.”

The coming of laser projection continued to be a hot topic at this year’s CinemaCon. At both CinemaCon and the prior NAB show, Christie was showcasing its new Christie Freedom® laser illumination system, based on a scalable laser light source with a choice of three projection heads tuned for specific customer needs: the DCI-compliant Christie Solaria CP42LH, capable of up to 48 Hz; the Christie D4K60LH, capable of up to 60 Hz; and the Christie Mirage 4KLH, billed as the only laser system capable of up to 4K resolution at 120 Hz in a single projector.

"By providing from 5,000 to 60,000 lumen brightness, 4K resolution and on up to the Rec. 2020 color space for the best color reproduction in the industry, Christie's RGB laser systems are setting new standards for incredible brightness, wider color gamut and astounding contrast," said Don Shaw, Christie’s senior director, product management.

Barco also introduced a family of laser-illuminated projectors for the cinema industry, consisting of four models–DP4K-60L, DP4K-45L, DP4K-30L and DP4K-22L—with a top light output of 60,000 lumens.

“As the market-share leader in digital-cinema projection, integrating laser illumination in our projection technology was the next logical step for us. We’re proud to be the first manufacturer to ship the only entirely integrated 6P solution for cinemas around the world,” stated Wim Buyens, Barco’s VP, entertainment.

“After years of development, we’re excited that laser projection is finally here,” said Stijn Henderickx, VP, digital cinema, at Barco. “As we’re fully committed to bringing the best picture quality to every movie theatre, we’ve made this cutting-edge technology available now. Our award-winning laser projectors bring high brightness levels to every type of cinema screen, from small to premium large formats. We truly believe laser projection is the future. That’s why we have a powerful laser innovation roadmap for the coming years which also includes both new and retrofit laser phosphor solutions. In this way the Barco laser technology is fully future-proof.”

Powered by the Series 3 Barco Alchemy Integrated Cinema Media Processor, Barco laser projectors are billed as the first in the world capable of showing full 4K content at 60 frames per second and 3D movies in 4K at high brightness levels. At a CinemaCon press conference, director of product management Bram Dieryckx revealed that Barco currently has 20 laser units in the field.

The third of the original DLP Cinema OEMs, NEC continues to target mid-size and smaller screens with its laser projectors. At CinemaCon, NEC introduced the NC1201L laser light source projector, the “big brother” to the NC1100L unveiled last year.

As Jim Reisteter, general manager of NEC’s digital cinema division, explained, “The big difference is it’s about 20% brighter, and it has a sealed light engine, which is really important for an exhibitor. It comes encased from the factory, allowing no direct outside air to get in there, preventing dust, dirt or any foreign particle from getting in and contaminating the engine. We’re still finalizing a worldwide price; it should be about 10% more than the 1100.” The NC1201L is expected to go on sale in July or August.

Outlining the company’s strategy, Reisteter said, “We believe that there is more of an opportunity for smaller, lighter-weight, less expensive solid-state laser projectors for exhibitors with mid-size and small screens, but more importantly, from a support perspective we have a network of dealers throughout the world. So I’m providing them with a product to sell to many people, as opposed to one bright 60,000-lumen laser projector that you’ve got a whole bunch of folks chasing after.”

Reisteter quickly added, “We will be providing a 35,000-lumen laser projector later in the year, because we realize there is a lot of interest at the higher end and we don’t want to folks to think: ‘NEC? You don’t have something at the high end?’”

Touting the benefits of his products, Reisteter said, “The exhibitor wants trouble-free operation and is always looking at his running costs. Our mid-range and lower-range laser projectors operate at 30% less power than the standard xenon projector. And if there’s no lamp, there’s fewer fans, less noise, no heat that damages components.”

Retrofitting for laser was a hot topic at CinemaCon, but Reisteter leans toward the new. “We have seen a lot of interest from exhibitors in trading in those old Series 1 [digital] projectors for a laser projector. But you can’t retrofit a Series 1, it’s not HFR, it’s an older technology before they changed the DCI standards. So we believe more of the opportunity is with a new projector at the mid or lower end, as opposed to a retrofit. And remember, people are still putting up new cinemas.”

As for those 300 to 400 U.S. cinemas that never made the jump to digital, Reisteter made sure to mention NEC’s “Ticket to Digital” financing program “with very liberal credit terms.” Click here for the firsthand account of one beneficiary, Jason Dover of Florida’s Port Richey Cinema.

During CinemaCon, two venerable cinema technology companies, Cinemeccanica and XPAND, announced a new alliance to bring a new line of laser projectors and laser light engine modules to cinemas worldwide.

The partners unveiled LUX, an aftermarket 6P laser light engine, compatible with all Series 2 DLP Cinema projectors. Installing LUX results in a 30 percent increase in brightness, a lifetime of 30,000 hours rather than 500, and a gain in energy efficiency of more than 50 percent, according to the joint announcement.

“This alliance presents the global exhibitor community with a winning combination of leading technology and an excellent partnership network,” stated Maria Costeira, chief executive officer of XPAND. “Strong commercial opportunities exist for the light engine retrofit solution that enables exhibitors to offer the highest quality to the largest screen, improve performance, lower costs and boost efficiency.”

Massimo Riva, CEO of Cinemeccanica, added, “The consumer gains a much richer, more immersive experience while the exhibitor dramatically improves his product offering at a lower cost of ownership. The one-two punch of this alliance addresses a real market need and provides each organization with a likeminded, well-equipped strategic partner.”

The modular design of the laser light engines allows customization from 20,000 up to 60,000 lumens with a single projector and up to 115,000 lumens in dual-projector configurations. As Cinemeccanica marketing director Pier Carlo Ottoni pointed out, that amount of light essentially eliminates the need for two stacked projectors in most large-format venues. “How much is the daily running cost for two projectors?” he asked rhetorically.

XPAND general manager Don Hart noted that LUX is “compatible with all three 3D technologies—active, passive and color separation,” and that the 14 foot-lamberts it easily generates is ideal for 3D screenings. He also reminded that the device’s 30,000-hour lifetime translates into roughly ten years of constant light levels.

As further motivation for potential customers, Costeira noted that XPAND and Cinemeccanica will assume the warranty and cover the virtual print fee and insurance for up to seven years for the retrofitted Series 2 projectors. She summed up their offering as “a technology that can deliver exactly what is needed.” And indeed, in their demo room at the Flamingo Hotel, the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer and other clips they presented couldn’t have looked brighter or sharper.

As laser gains ground, leading lighting company Osram Sylvania is making an extra effort to maintain its status as a supplier of traditional xenon bulbs to cinemas. At CinemaCon, the company introduced new, longer-life XBO digital-cinema lamps, with a rated life of up to 3,300 hours and service warranties of up to 3,500 hours. The new lamp sacrifices less than 10 percent of lumen output in order to achieve 10 to 25 percent additional lifetime, depending on the wattage.

It’s safe to say that with the digital transition still a fairly young phenomenon, the need for xenon lamps will continue into the foreseeable future. And, as Brent Eastwood, Osram Sylvania’s projection product manager, declared, “The new addition of Osram XBO long-life lamps to our portfolio allows theatres to be flexible when balancing their presentation and total cost per hour.”

One final trend observed at CinemaCon was a new emphasis on showmanship outside the auditorium and in the lobby where eager moviegoers first gather.

In fact, Christie’s tag line for its overall 2015 CinemaCon presentation was “Christie has it—from the street to the screen.” Kathryn Cress, Christie’s VP, global and corporate marketing, said that theme reflected “Christie’s ability to create immersive solutions that draw in and captivate moviegoers, influencing and engaging them from the moment they step into a theatre lobby. This in turn will continue to drive revenue into our customers’ pockets.”

Among those solutions is Christie Experiential Networks, billed as the first fully integrated, nationwide digital-out-of-home advertising network. Digital stations using Bluetooth and NFC technology allow advertisers to activate various types of campaigns, such as augmented reality, gesture and touch-screen experiences, along with mobile and social-media programs.

Christie also provides digital signage formats that can include projection mapping, freestanding displays, menu boards, transparent LCDs, and shape-driven architectural installations. Christie’s range of display solutions includes thin LCD flat panels, from the 46-inch Christie FHD461-X to the ultra-high-resolution Christie QuadHD84 flat panel; LEDs from 2.5 mm to 4.0 mm; and Christie MicroTiles®, an award-winning LED-based rear-projection display technology.

Barco calls its approach “Lobby Enchantment,” a “show before the show” creatively deploying LCD and LED displays, high-resolution event projectors, augmented reality, projection mapping and high-fidelity audio throughout the lobby.

At CinemaCon, VP of global entertainment Todd Hoddick spoke of the need to provide audiences with “a transition” from the parking lot to the auditorium, and proclaimed that “technology is bringing showmanship back to the cinema.”

Barco’s turnkey content-management service automatically synchronizes all screen content–concessions, movie posters, projection, video walls, feature screens, wayfinding and box office–to promote upcoming movie titles or concession specials at regular intervals. It updates movie posters and display content on a weekly basis, and enables guests to download trailers and instantly purchase movie tickets using their smartphones. “It’s using Hollywood content in a choreographed method across many screens,” declared director of strategic partnerships Jim Molony.

To paraphrase a lyric from that classic musical Carousel, movie theatres are busting out all over! Who knows what concepts await us at CinemaCon 2016?