LED-ing the Way? Direct View Displays face market challenges

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Technology

“Direct View Displays [DvDs] are at the same stage as digital projectors were in 1999/2000 and face many of the same issues: high cost, content shortage and a small deployment base,” says Patrick von Sychowski, editor of Celluloid Junkie. He believes the systems will come down in cost, but not as much or as fast as digital projectors did.

“Instead, DvDs will have to prove their commercial viability through lower TCO [total cost of ownership] and/or ticket upcharge, as they won't be paid for by VPFs [Virtual Print Fees, which helped subsidize many of today’s digital projection systems],” he adds.

David Monk, CEO of European Digital Forum, generally agrees with von Sychowski on the expected pricing arc. “Most new technology starts off as expensive and small in size, which is an extra challenge for exhibitors. I was part of the genesis of digital cinema projection and there was considerable reluctance within some parts of the creative community to embrace the new technology. This is starting over with Direct View Screens, as some leading moviemakers fear that it reduces cinemagoing to watching film on a big TV.”

In terms of the competitive landscape, “Just now [Direct View] is a one-horse race,” Monk points out, “as Samsung is the only company with an announced product family.” As expected, another key competitor lurks just around the corner. More on that below.

As exhibition’s DvD pioneer, with its first-to-market LED screens for cinema, Samsung is focused on making LED a realistic substitute to standard projection. With that role comes educating the overall industry about the state-of-the-art technology and proactively demonstrating its benefits to the different stakeholders across the exhibition ecosystem.

“Our Onyx Cinema LED screen is the biggest disruption in the cinema industry over the last several years,” claims David Hernandez, Samsung’s European Onyx cinema business development manager. “It offers features like ultra-contrast with true black, HDR support and ten times higher brightness compared to standard projectors, amongst other benefits.”  

Onyx is a unique product, tailor-made for cinemas. The technology utilizes special diodes, chosen to be part of a particular screen, custom-designed cabinets, and a specific mechanical design that meets the DCI requirements, in addition to undergoing a very strict QA process.

Says Hernandez, “We want to redefine the theatrical experience, to keep cinema in the top position of entertainment options, and that will happen if a cinema room remains as the best place to watch a movie. We are so convinced that this is the path, we clearly expect others to join us and follow our steps.”

Advantages of Direct View LED include product reliability, QA process, brand trust, picture quality and uniformity. Hernandez and his team believe these are clear differentiators and key elements for exhibitors to consider.

Since there is no need for a projection booth, extra air-conditioning machinery or exhaustion pipes in the auditorium, architects can also be more flexible and economical with designing available space. Every square meter costs money and with Direct View you can give those available meters back to the business, either via extra lobby space or by installing more seats, as several attractive alternatives.

3D movies are also a unique experience for the audience, Hernandez asserts: “Onyx's 3D offers unparalleled depth and enhanced brightness.” Samsung’s branded screen is also unaffected by ambient light. Due to its specialized emissive LED technology, Onyx upholds exceptional picture quality even at ambient lighting levels.

This past April, Samsung and partner Moving Image Technologies opened the first Onyx theatre in the U.S. at Hollywood’s Pacific Theatres Winnetka. Samsung is also partnering with Malaysia’s Golden Screen Cinemas and Austria’s Cineplexx circuit on Onyx projects. Samsung is also working with GDC Technology to develop Onyx-compatible servers.

According to Bob Raposo, head of cinema for Sony Electronics, Samsung should have a formidable direct competitor prior to the current calendar year coming to a close. “We expect to have DCI compliance before the end of 2018, and we'll have a few test locations to build awareness of Crystal LED’s benefits among exhibitors. It's not going to happen overnight, but this will be the beginning of our timeline,” he promises.

In the meantime, Sony plans to continue gleaning value-added feedback from key constituents across the cinema industry to make sure they are delivering the right technology that the marketplace is seeking. “We’re working closely with exhibitors, but also with studios and filmmakers,” confirms Raposo. “It's especially important to us that filmmakers want to have their movies shown on Sony Crystal LED, which is why we are making sure we consult with them.”

Sony has already done some test screenings together with filmmakers, and that discerning audience was favorably convinced that Direct View technology shows their movies in the way they want them seen on the big screen.

The first task is to build awareness among exhibitors, studios and filmmakers; Sony’s next goal will be to drive consumer interest and excitement and, ultimately, box-office rewards.

Comparing Samsung’s Onyx offering to Sony’s Crystal LED, Raposo says the difference is primarily due to Crystal’s unique MicroLED technology and the technology’s 99% black surface area that delivers a true and verified contrast ratio of over 1,000,000 to 1, with high resolution and immersive visuals. The modular nature of Sony’s Crystal LED also offers unlimited flexibility. In addition, Sony plans to provide exhibitors with a full turnkey solution—including imaging, sound, screen and piracy protection.

When asked to gaze into his crystal ball to forecast the future of LED screens in the marketplace in the coming five years, Samsung’s Hernandez predicts, “Putting together our research and the customers' feedback we have gathered so far, we do believe LED technology will become the standard playback technology by that time. That's our goal and that's the direction we are working on now.”

Raposo tends to agree, although in his world view, not surprisingly, Sony will be the eventual market leader over that timeframe.

What gating factors may slow down the overall pace of Direct View cinema adoption? Monk is on balance positive about Samsung’s initial entrée into the LED screen market, with its impressive picture, brightness, contrast, color and reliability. One concern he points out is that “at the moment it is not possible to direct the center sound channels through the screen, which some see as a major issue.”

Hernandez cites lack of information as one of the key obstacles standing in the way of faster adoption of Direct View. “Cinema is somehow a very conservative industry, and it takes time to introduce a new technology, and even more if it's so disruptive as Onyx. We encourage exhibitors to get informed about the technology, its benefits, and how it can help drive more business to their multiplex,” he adds.

Von Sychowski predicts that over the next five years Direct View will overtake IMAX screens in numbers (i.e., the low four figures) and will feature in at least half of all new cinema installations, at least across Asia. Unlike digital projectors, where Texas Instruments’ DLP dominance meant that only Sony came up with a viable alternative, there are fewer barriers to entry for DvDs.

“As such, we should not only expect the likes of Barco and Christie to enter this field, once they see a significant market that won't cannibalize existing laser projector sales, von Sychowski forecasts. “More significantly, Direct View gives China the means to create its own domestic cinema screen technology, instead of relying on imports and foreign companies. China is the biggest trend to watch in DvD developments over the next five years.”