Technology in Motion: CinemaCon 2017 unveils exciting new innovations

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Technology

Innovation in the motion picture theatre space has been coming fast and furious (to coin a phrase) in the past decade, with the arrival of immersive audio, laser-illuminated projectors, high dynamic range, high frame rates and, perhaps most beloved by cinema-goers, those plush new power recliners.

The innovation train is still running at high speed, to judge by the technological marvels on display at the recently concluded CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas. We saw a number of impressive laser-projection demonstrations, and a glimpse of what could be the next phase of visual presentation in cinemas: LED-based technologies that forgo the projector altogether. There were also new premium-large-format concepts on display, innovations in theatre management systems and processors, and even a few new moves in the motion-seating business.

GDC Technology, the Hong Kong-based digital technology pioneer whose servers dominate the Asia-Pacific market and rank number two worldwide, unveiled a stunning array of new initiatives at the Vegas show. Top of the list was Jetreel™ Cinema, its new branded “ultra-premium-large-format” offering, which senior VP of strategic planning Tony Adamson called “the most uniquely luxurious cinema experience ever introduced into the world.” The concept includes extremely plush seating with massage and cooling options, and personalized concierge service at those seats by fully trained staff. But above all, Adamson vowed, “you have to have the most amazing presentation.” GDC is envisioning a 67-foot-wide by 35-foot-high screen comprised of Samsung LED video panels; the 8K version would utilize 384 of them for a picture totaling 33 million pixels, with a contrast ratio of “infinity to one.”

As GDC founder and chairman Dr. Man Nang Chong noted, “If you use a projector-based solution, there’s always light coming from the projector. This technology is revolutionary because it doesn’t use a projector and it absorbs light. The brightness is incredible—146 foot-lamberts—and there’s more high dynamic range. This makes it a more immersive experience.”

At the show, Dr. Chong also touted GDC’s new sixth-generation media server, the SR-1000, which is designed with cache memory to play back content without HDD storage. “We use the same power chip set used in military or medical equipment,” he commented. “We have switched to a well-known supplier that I’m sure your President would like to hear: GE.”

Another innovative product is SmartCinema™ software,akin to smart home automation but designed specifically for the cinema industry.It provides real-time remote monitoring and control of the entire site’s physical security via CCTV cameras, smart locks and sensors, along with monitoring of energy consumption, temperature, smoke and water leaks. It even counts the number of patrons entering and exiting the auditorium and audits against ticket sales for each showtime.

Dr. Chong was also pleased to report on the rapid growth of GDC’s DTS:X immersive audio program in less than two years, with nearly 400 auditoriums running worldwide (most in China) and 600+ contracted. In a clever marketing gambit, GDC has also created pods for the lobby where patrons can try on headphones and hear the difference DTS:X audio makes.

 

GDC wasn’t the only company previewing a non-projector LED future. In one of its demo rooms, Sony installed a 16-foot screen comprised of Crystal LED 4K panels. (Each surface-mounted LED is half the thickness of a human hair.) The picture quality of Sony’s CLEDIS™ display was incredibly sharp and the colors truly popped. And the demo gave CinemaCon viewers a rare chance to watch a potent battle scene from Ang Lee’s groundbreaking but underperforming Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 4K and 120 frames per second (but not in 3D).

Oliver Pasch, Sony’s European digital cinema sales director, told me the images we were watching had a million-to-one contrast ratio, with brightness of 292 foot-lamberts. The modular system also provides 180-degree viewing: “You get the same image quality everywhere in the auditorium,” he explained. “And the life expectancy of this device, even operating at full power, is 87,000 hours before it goes down to 50% of the brightness.”

Pasch also emphasized, “This is a product we have developed for the visualization markets—it is not a cinema product yet. The reason we are showing it at CinemaCon is we want to have feedback from the industry people, both the content-creation side and the exhibition side, on whether they’d be interested in considering this for their screens.” Laser is just now making inroads into theatres, but Pasch believes that “LED is the next revolution.”

Speaking of laser, the other big news from Sony at CinemaCon was the unveiling of its long-awaited prototype of a 4K, HFR-ready RGB laser projection system.

“We’ve always insisted we’re going to do laser right, and at the right time,” David McIntosh, VP, Sony Digital Cinema 4K Solutions for Europe and the Americas, stated just before CinemaCon. “In a post-VPF world, laser projection is a major investment for any theatre owner. If you’ve been holding out for the economics and technical performance of laser to stack up, now’s definitely the time for a second look.”

 

According to European digital technology leader Ymagis Group, Sony’s current 4K R510 and R515 projectors, with their 8000:1 contrast ratio, are the only ones now on the market equipped to show their new EclairColor high-dynamic-range color system. Eclair states that their new mastering process results in improved color fidelity, greater contrast, more brightness and sharper detail—and their demo footage at CinemaCon backed up those claims. A montage from Ron Fricke’s Samsara, a globetrotting array of spectacular images shot in 70mm, is ideal material to show off your system’s capability, and the visuals were astonishingly crisp. Eclair also offered split-screen comparisons from the French adventure drama Belle & Sebastian of Eclair-mastered scenes and standard footage, revealing more details of grass, fur, smoke and faces in the former. There are currently 26 EclairColor-equipped screens in France and 25 in Germany, with venues opening soon in the U.K. and Italy. Twenty-four films have been released in EclairColor to date, including La La Land, Personal Shopper and The Lost City of Z.

Like GDC Technology, Ymagis was also showcasing at CinemaCon a new premium cinema concept, called Sphera. The idea is to provide a plush, state-of-the-art audiovisual environment for any type of content: film, arts programming, gaming, events or concerts.

 

Venerable technology company Christie debuted in Vegas the latest addition to its Christie Freedom Series—the CP4325-RGB, an “all in one” RGB laser projector that the company says delivers significantly higher efficiency than lasers currently used in cinemas.

Based on the Christie CineLife™ Series 3 electronics platform—which also supports the new Christie CP2308 lamp-based projector—the CP4325-RGB eliminates the current need for sub-ambient cooling. A “vast palette” of colors and higher contrast ratios are promised, along with simplified playback, scheduling and management of cinema content. Christie says this new projector will have an operational life of more than 30,000 hours, with only a 20 percent loss in brightness for the light source. It will begin shipping in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Live demonstrations of Christie’s newest cinema audio product, the Christie Vive Audio LS series, were also held at CinemaCon. In addition, a new Vive Audio SD5 Sigma Delta amplifier was on display, featuring an expansion slot on the front panel that enables installation of optional cards including support for network control and monitoring.

The company also mounted an elaborate showcase of the Christie Lobby Experience. At the entrance, the demo schedule was displayed on 55-inch Christie LCD panels using Allure’s Digital Box Office system. A corridor consisted of a curved screen and content from Christie 360 Experiential Studios shown by two Christie Q Series projectors. The concessions area featured four 55-inch Christie ultra-narrow bezel LCD flat panels with Allure’s digital menu board, and the bar area showcased a herringbone “hero wall,” a 65-inch interactive kiosk by Allure’s Christie Experiential Networks, and Allure’s Digital Merchandiser providing promotional information with eye-catching graphics.

 

Noted Italian projector company Cinemeccanica is taking a different approach to the laser revolution. For the second year in a row, it held an informational event at the neighboring Flamingo Hotel, where it touted its Smart Cinema Laser RGB Lux light source, a scalable solution that can be retrofitted on any DLP digital projector to replace the traditional Xenon lamp. Lorenzo Branca, R&D manager, listed for potential customers the four advantages of switching to laser: more light, more contrast, a wider color gamut, and savings. And both he and sales and marketing director Pier Carlo Ottoni championed the superiority of RGB laser over less expensive and less powerful laser phosphor projectors, which are not suitable for the largest screens. “RGB could be the final and main technology,” Ottoni opined.

The Lux RGB laser is now in its second generation, offering bigger savings and higher quality, according to Ottoni. There are nine models, providing from 19,000 lumens up to 57.5 lumens, with a lifetime of 30,000 hours and 50% reduction of power consumption. Currently, Cinemeccanica has 100 units committed or installed, with 80% in China and the remainder in Europe, Russia and the USA.

 

Dolby Laboratories came to CinemaCon touting its new IMS3000 Integrated Media Server, an innovative product which combines Dolby audio and image processing in one unit. It works in tandem with the Dolby Multichannel Amplifier, which can replace up to 16 amplifiers, taking up less rack space and generating less heat. Also part of the mix is the SLS Express Series, which consists of compact SLS 3-axis speakers and the SLS Rapid Rigging System, which simplifies overhead speaker installation. Altogether, they provide a complete, integrated system ranging from 5.1 audio to Dolby Atmos.

“It’s part of the evolution of our products, to be able to consolidate how we do things,” said Stuart Bowling, director of content and creative relations. “You can even go back to the Dolby Digital days, when the digital decoder got folded into a cinema processor. As part of the evolution of processing power that’s now available inside media blocks, we can now incorporate the Atmos CP750 and in that way add some cost savings for the exhibitor and give them more flexibility.”

A major goal is to make the company’s Dolby Atmos immersive audio offering more accessible and affordable. “Since five years ago when we launched Dolby Atmos at this show,” Bowling observed, “we’ve had tremendous milestones, with 2,700-plus screens, 1,000 deployments in APAC [Asia-Pacific], Russia with 100 deployments. Over those five years, we’ve not only accelerated the amount of movies created in Dolby Atmos, we’ve also found ways to innovate and reduce the cost of ownership.”

He continued, “The beauty of the [Atmos] technology is that it’s completely scalable. You can go very big or very small. Smaller auditoriums require fewer speakers than larger auditoriums. Movie theatres are designed to offer plenty of screen choices. If you weren’t able to get in on opening weekend, you can still have that immersive experience.”

Dolby Cinema, the initiative that incorporates Dolby Atmos, Dolby Vision high-dynamic-range projection and handsome theatre design, is also progressing nicely. There are currently 80 Dolby Cinemas worldwide, with the chief customer AMC Theatres in the USA. As for the public’s response, “People are saying they never want to see a movie in a room other than Dolby Cinema,” Bowling reported.

AMC will surpass 100 Dolby Cinemas by the end of this year, and add another 65 by the end of 2018. Other Dolby Cinemas clients include Wanda Cinemas, Jackie Chan Cinemas, Austria’s Cineplexx, and the recently announced Reel Cinemas in the Middle East.

Dolby Vision, meanwhile, is a hit with the creative community. “Literally every filmmaker we bring in is blown away by the experience,” Bowling said. “Every time we show it in a demo, there’s a gasp or a wow or an expletive.”

 

Barco arrived in Vegas with the largest laser projector portfolio in the business—no less than 15 models. Barco VP of cinema Stijn Henderickx announced that over 200 of the company’s high-end Flagship Laser projectors are installed around the world, for 45 premium-large-format brands. He cited surveys finding that 95% of moviegoers at Flagship Laser presentations rated the visuals “excellent,” with 66% saying they would come more often to see movies projected by laser and 75% stating they would be willing to pay more.

Meanwhile, Barco’s smart laser projectors, for more mainstream auditoriums, have topped 1,500 installations.

Barco’s press briefing also highlighted Barco and Vision Media Management’s creation of the One Network Alliance, touted as the industry’s only provider of lobby promotions that address the full range of studio/exhibitor needs including digital, digital plus static, and static-only media assets. Barco VP Greg Patrick said the full transition from static to digital materials in the lobby will take time and coordination, but he envisions a lobby of the future incorporating virtual reality, augmented reality, selfie opportunities, and touch-point experiences that will collect valuable data about moviegoing consumers. Barco’s goal is to eventually have 1,500 full-digital lobbies in North America

At a special presentation and panel discussion, Barco also updated attendees on its panoramic Barco Escape format that features a front screen and two side screens. They screened impressive reformatted footage from last year’s Star Trek Beyond and trailers for two upcoming Escape movies: the horror thriller The Recall (which will include 30 to 40 minutes of panoramic visuals) and 6 Below, the first complete feature for the Escape format, directed by Scott Waugh (Need for Speed). The panel included Waugh, his editor Vashi Nedomansky, Recall director Mauro Borrelli and producer Kevin DeWalt (CEO and president of Minds Eye Entertainment), SkyVR CEO Josh Courtney, and Recall star Wesley Snipes, who touted the format’s potential for action movies “on steroids.” Waugh talked about the complexities of shooting in two formats (Escape and traditional 2.35 to one) at the same time, while Snipes noted that the panorama will demand more of actors working as an ensemble across that wide visual space. Escape still needs a steady pipeline of product, but Barco trumpeted 88% positive ratings from Star Trek moviegoers polled, with 80% saying they would pay to see another movie in the Escape format.

 

Another alternative offering creating buzz throughout the Vegas show was “The Mummy Zero Gravity VR Experience,” sponsored by IMAX in the Roman Ballroom. You couldn’t ask for a more ideal promotion for Universal’s upcoming Mummy reboot, as this virtual-reality presentation took you inside the plane where Tom Cruise, co-star Annabelle Wallis and his crew shot a major stunt for the movie in zero gravity (in a reported 62 takes!). Though the visual display wasn’t high-resolution, you still felt like you were right there next to the actors and crew, and when the flight reached zero gravity, your moving chair replicated the sensation. The CinemaCon demo was also a great showcase for Positron, creator of the first full-motion cinematic VR chair, which intends to create more movie VR tie-ins in the future.

 

Also embracing virtual reality is the Korean company CJ 4DPLEX, pioneers of motion and effects seating for cinemas. Their VR sports-attraction units combine the company’s traditional motion-synchronized seating with VR content. The current 4DX lineup consists of the “Kayak Type,” “Board Type” and “Bike Type.” The Bike Type, designed to recreate extreme sports such as mountain biking and motorcycling, was showcased for the first time in the United States at CinemaCon.

Adding to their panoply of seat effects, CJ 4DPLEX also debuted two new movements, “sway” and “twist,” that bring 170 degrees of possible motion to the 4DX experience, increasing the seats’ up and down movement while also allowing right, left and rotational movement simultaneously. This latest “twist” is meant to further enhance action scenes such as car chases, flying, rolling seas and spacewalking. The CinemaCon demo included the trailers for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Transformers: The Last Knight.

4DX is currently installed in 370 auditoriums spanning 47 countries, Since 2009, more than 400 Hollywood titles have been screened in 4DX.