Loud and clear: Technology marches on at CinemaCon 2011

As digital projection and 3D continue to gather powerful momentum across the globe, one could easily be forgiven for asking the naïve question: Where do we go from here? At NATO’s first CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, technology mavens were more than eager to provide a glimpse at what lies ahead for motion picture presentations, both visually and aurally.

The biggest splash was made by box-office king James Cameron, who presented an early-morning program devoted to his new cause: film production using higher frame rates. To make his point, Cameron shot test sequences with his Titanic cinematographer Russell Carpenter on an elaborately dressed medieval set with actors in period costumes laughing it up at a banquet and engaged in a fierce swordfight. Each 3D sequence was shot at 24, 48 and 60 frames per second, and Cameron used a laser pointer to illustrate how panning the camera invariably produces strobing of people and objects at the traditional 24-frame speed. Both the 48 and 60-frame clips were markedly superior, eliminating strobing and bringing greater clarity to objects captured by the moving camera.

Cameron said he's "agnostic" about whether 48 or 60 fps should be adopted, but he reiterated his plans to shoot Avatar 2 at a higher frame rate. Lensing on that much-anticipated project, which he is still writing, is at least 18 months away, he revealed.

The tech-savvy director assured the crowd that the new generation of digital projectors is already capable of accommodating higher frame-rate content with a minor software upgrade, and he also argued that increases in production rendering budgets could be kept to a reasonable level with "smart coding."

Most ominously, Cameron warned the cinema community that live 3D TV sports programming is already produced at 60 fps, so increasing the frame rate for theatrical features would ensure that movies are keeping up with the state of the art that high-end consumers can already get at home.

The demo was held at the Caesars Palace Colosseum theatre, using double stacked Christie DLP Cinema projectors, Doremi servers and RealD 3D.

Aurally, too, the movie community isn’t resting on its laurels. Dolby Labs introduced its new Surround 7.1 audio format (adding new Back Surround Left and Back Surround Right zones) last summer with the release of Toy Story 3, a format now on 1,300 screens worldwide. At CinemaCon, Dolby cinema technical marketing manager Stuart Bowling offered a look at Dolby’s evolution from 5.1 to 7.1 and a glimpse of the next step: an even fuller sound experience created by going vertical and installing additional speakers high above the audience. Bowling revealed that Dolby has done a 12-channel “concept mix” of Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles and a 14-channel remix of Avatar, and predicted that the new format could be rolled out as soon as 18 months from now. Meanwhile, summer blockbusters Kung Fu Panda 2, Cars 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Transformers: Dark of the Moon are all being released in the 7.1 format.

Leading 3D company Barco is also exploring the richness of vertically enhanced audio, partnering with top European sound facility Galaxy Studios on a new format called Auro-3D. Audio innovator Wilfried Van Baelen conducted a private demo in a hotel room at Caesars Palace fitted out with nine speakers (two less than the Auro-3D norm), playing both audio and video clips in various channel configurations. “3D sound needs height,” Van Baelen argued, and the robust sound produced by the extra, higher speakers dramatically made his case. Even a mono recording of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” sounded markedly richer with the added speakers.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Dave Duncan, DLP Cinema manager at Texas Instruments, was celebrating the fact that TI’s OEM licensees, Barco, Christie and NEC, had installed more digital-cinema projectors in every region of the world in the last 12 months than in the last 12 years. In the period between March 2, 2010, and March 2, 2011, the number of DLP Cinema screens showing 2D Hollywood content worldwide grew 101% to a total of 33,110 (up from 16,446), and 128% for 3D Hollywood content, rising to 22,287 (from 9,758). These counts do not include IMAX’s digital installations powered by DLP Cinema, which separately grew 91% for a total of 296 screens. “After all the struggles we went through for so many years, this payoff is really cool,” Duncan beamed.

“Even though we had a very successful 2010, this year is going to be even bigger,” Duncan predicts. “Two of our three customers have opened up new facilities in China, and they’ve all rapidly expanded their capabilities with regard to production.”

Duncan notes, “China is a place we’re paying particular attention to. The number of screens being built there on a monthly basis is incredible. We’ll be over there several times this year. We want to help them grow that market as fast as they intend to grow it.”

Texas Instruments’ three OEMs all introduced 4K projectors in the past year, so we asked Duncan for his perspective on the role of 4K in today’s cinemas. “You have to look at your theatre and determine what your needs are, based on screen size and type of seating. I’ve seen them side-by-side on a 65-foot-wide screen. Where my wife and I sit in a movie theatre, I think they’re both incredible images. I wouldn’t be disappointed with either 2K or 4K. But if I got to the theatre late and I had to sit in the front couple of rows of the theatre I usually go to, I would notice the difference. I think every exhibitor needs to make their own decision based on the demographics of their screens and what the typical load of those houses happens to be… I still think 2K moving forward will be the de-facto standard, and 4K will be reserved for more premium houses.”

Duncan points out that “with DLP Cinema, you have a choice. With a .98 2K projector, you can fit a fairly small bulb and you can have a killer, energy-efficient product for 60 or 70 percent of the screens in your theatre. Moving up, a bigger 2K chip is still unbelievably energy-efficient and will light up the biggest screens—Barco just broke the Guinness Book world record with 43,000 lumens of brightness. But if you want the 4K experience, now you can buy it from Barco, Christie and NEC.”

For Jack Kline, president and COO of Christie, “The excitement around CinemaCon is that digital cinema not only is permanently embedded, it is also going to become the standard. We have reached far beyond the tipping point. Digital-cinema deployment is being embraced on such a global basis now that the total transition from film to digital will be completed in a much shorter time frame than we ever anticipated.”

Studios and distributors are being “very clear that everybody needs to get a partner and get their systems switched over,” Kline warns. “Sooner rather than later, because the support that they are going to be able to supply in terms of film is going to end. That is putting a lot of pressure on all the deployment entities and on the manufacturers.”

In response, Christie has nearly doubled its manufacturing capabilities. “We anticipate that the next two years, which will be the top of the deployment period, are going to be very hectic.” Reassuringly, “we’re telling customers that we are the partner they ought to work with because of our history in the business, the solutions that we have and our global acceptance. We are very excited about 2011-12.”

The groundwork for the coming boom was laid early in 2010, Kline reviews. “We embarked on establishing a DLP manufacturing facility in Shenzhen, China, and were able to ramp up that process from scratch in about six months. They are now fully producing our digital-cinema projectors there, as we continue to do in Kitchener, Ontario.” Since the projectors and all parts made in both factories are identical, Christie has “capacity to flex our manufacturing so we can increase Shenzhen as our demand in Asia/Pacific requires, all the while still having the ability to increase manufacturing in Canada as well.”

Speaking of the former region, “the excitement in China for building new theatres and for completely digitizing the existing ones throughout 2011 is nothing short of amazing. We think the market will continue to expand rapidly over the next ten years. India is moving to digitization as well. And, with support from our parent company Ushio, we just announced a deployment program in Japan that will digitize 80% of the screens there in about 18 months. There’s a lot happening in Asia/Pacific and VPF agreements that we are working with in the United States will be available shortly,” Kline anticipates.

Europe, the Middle East and Africa have been equally important regions for Christie. “Over the past few years, we have become a market leader over there with our partners Arts Alliance Media and XDC. It is a challenging market because, unlike some other areas, it is many different countries with many different types of deployment plans. Some of them are supported by the government and others by deploying agencies.” While Europe represents “a very complicated business solution,” he feels, “it is moving very rapidly now.” As the more “neglected region for deployment” until this point, Kline sees Latin America as “the next big growth opportunity.”

On the subject of the megapixel mania that overtook digital photography being repeated at the cinema, Kline remains realistic. “Christie is always going to continue to work on developing advanced systems and improvements. However, the core system of DLP Cinema, 2K or 4K, is now and will continue to be the standard. I don’t think that there is a visual advantage in higher resolutions. There certainly is no cost advantage… We really are at a very good place in development and continue to enhance our system, but it is not going to be made obsolete by anything that we do.”

What about increasing frame rates? James Cameron gave Christie more than a shout-out during his much revered demonstration. “Yes,” Kline confirms, “those are the types of enhancements that we are going to see over the life of digital cinema.” He credits DLP Cinema for enabling opportunities “that weren’t there in the film world. With higher frame rates, we can get better images and actually increase the light output. Christie is working very closely with Lightstorm, James Cameron and Jon Landau to actually develop solutions that will give moviemakers more tools to enhance their storytelling.”

Kline proudly states that “we were the first licensee of DLP Cinema; we were the first ones to develop it; we were the first ones to have a scalable business model and major deployment It was all about the belief that digital cinema was going to be good for the cinema industry, good for exhibition and good for distribution. It is very refreshing and rewarding to see that the divisions that we had at Christie ten years ago are now fully embedded not only in North America and Europe, but across the entire world.”

“Innovation is accelerating at a faster pace than ever before,” declares Dolby Cinema senior product manager. David DesRoches. A case in point is Dolby’s latest Digital Cinema System Software optimization to DCSS v.4.3, “which at eight months was the shortest release cycle yet.” Quicker turnover means delivery sooner, including such features as automatic 3D mode switch and support for dual-projector 3D, alongside improvements of Dolby’s web application programming interface (API).

During his CinemaCon presentation, DesRoches expertly guided exhibitors and other interested parties through “The Present and Future of Dolby Digital Cinema.” Beginning with the “elephants” of 4K and DCI compliancy in the room, while testing for the latter “is not a technological but more of a business concern,” the former would carry limited availability at first along with a price premium of 20 to 40%. There were only seven 4K titles last year and four have been announced so far for 2011. Together, that represents less than the number of Dolby 7.1 mixed and released films, he noted, despite the surround format having launched only last June. Nonetheless, DesRoches reassured attendees that Dolby’s 4K solution with a 2K/4K Integrated Media Block will be available in the fall.

From the look and the design of it, the DSS (Dolby Screen Server) 220 will be worth the wait. At half the weight of the current DSS200—the majority of its “market-proven” install base can support 4K after a coming software upgrade, by the way—and only 17.7 inches (50 cm) deep, DSS220 will include a heavy four terabytes of net storage (3 x 2 TB RAID 5 for those in the know). Of its other technological advances, better left to the experts and detailed brochures, the mention of “affordability” always catches one’s attention.

“Optimized for centrally managed network installations,” Dolby summarizes, “the DSS220 includes everything necessary to manage a screen, and leverages the library server for other capabilities shared across multiple screens.” After all, to “fully exploit capabilities of an IP network-based digital infrastructure to lower acquisition and operating costs” is a core element of Dolby’s cinema strategy, DesRoches affirms.

Dolby also made colorful news with its next-generation 3D glasses. Decidedly more lightweight, form-fitting (children sizes coming next quarter) and with lower cost of re-usable ownership (list price $12 or lower with a Dolby 3D package), the nylon-made frames now come in a variety of colors. In addition to matching auditorium look and design, customization will allow circuits to brand their own signature colors.

Wider side temples and a shelf along the top edge of the frames, Dolby explains, “help prevent extraneous light from entering the glasses, reducing internal lens reflections.” Dolby partnered with 3M in developing these upgraded lenses from a multilayer optical film material with an antireflective coating that is scratch-resistant to boot. It’s all part of maintaining “the premium-quality visual performance that Hollywood has come to expect from Dolby 3D,” noted Matt Cuson, the company’s senior marketing director for cinema. Dolby has shipped more than 7,700 3D digital-cinema systems since November 2007.

RealD was a highly visible presence at CinemaCon, lending its 3D technology not only to James Cameron’s landmark presentation but to the DLP Cinema salute to the top-grossing movies of 2010 and the panel discussion with Cameron, George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg, where company CEO Michael Lewis served as moderator. At the show, RealD proudly announced that as of Dec. 24, 2010, it had deployed roughly 11,300 screens worldwide, a 163% increase since the end of 2009.

An aggressive player in the world 3D market is XPAND, which had plenty of news to share at CinemaCon 2011. First and foremost was the introduction of XPAND Infinity, a new 3D system featuring two different models of eyewear, multi-directional synchronization, and an extremely high 3D contrast ratio.
“It’s 3D for any size environment, even IMAX,” says CEO Maria Costeira. “We’ve done a lot of conversions of IMAX screens.”

XPAND Infinity is packaged with seven controllers, and a choice of XPAND Infinity or XPAND Infinity Deluxe 3D glasses. The lightweight, ergonomic Infinity Deluxe eyewear offers up to 38% transparency and a 3000:1 contrast ratio, and comes with rechargeable batteries.

“More and more, 3D is becoming mainstream, so there is more than room for extreme good quality of 3D product,” Costeira believes. “We always tell exhibitors: Use the X101 in your regular theatres, then use the Infinity product for big auditoriums in A-minus complexes, then use Infinity Deluxe in your flagships. You can even have the three of them in one complex where people are willing to pay a dividend.”

The company also announced the availability in North and South America of two bundles featuring 3D solutions for different theatre sizes and price points. The XPAND 3D Kit Bundle includes an entire XPAND 3D Cinema System (including infrared emitters and tester), a Doremi DCP-2000 cinema server, and 400 X101 3D glasses. The XPAND ONE Bundle for small venues includes 200 101 glasses, a Doremi DCP-2000 server, and an XPAND ONE 3D system.

XPAND also demonstrated a new plug-in application that lets users easily add 3D images, graphics and objects to PowerPoint presentations, a tool sure to be embraced by execs looking to enliven those corporate lectures.

Although it’s largely found in higher-end theatres in North America, XPAND 3D technology is used in over 3,500 3D cinemas in more than 50 countries. And, as Costeira declares, “There’s not a single gamer who doesn’t know who we are, that we’re the Bose of 3D. We expect to be the 3D plug of every single device out there, from the medical to the military to schooling, 3D cinemas, TVs, PCs, laptops—whatever you can think of.”

A fourth major player in digital 3D is MasterImage 3D. “The theme of our campaign this year is two things: momentum and satisfied customers,” says president Peter Koplik. “When we came to ShoWest two years ago, we were brand-new and we had fewer than 100 systems deployed around the world. Two years later, we have over 3,000 systems deployed in over 60 countries.”

Koplik feels the key to his company’s growth is “a premium presentation-quality product at a fair price, with a business model that works for exhibitors.” He notes, “There are no per-ticket charges or license fees with our system—you buy it and you own it. That’s been met with a very warm response in the marketplace, which does not want another partner to whom they pay essentially forever. We’re marketing our product as a technology product, not like a new revenue dilution.”

MasterImage’s top markets are Europe and Asia. In North America, Koplik admits, RealD has long held the lead. “They are Goliath and we are David, but we are getting pretty good with our slingshot,” he jokes.
Just prior to CinemaCon, MasterImage announced that it had received a $15 million investment from Samsung Ventures. Koplik calls Samsung “a tremendous strategic partner as an investor, and this vote of confidence from one of the largest, most valued consumer brands is a tremendous validation of our R&D and the genius of the technological engineers who have worked very hard at MasterImage for many years.”

Harkness Screens, the world’s leading manufacturer of cinema screens, is also responding to the new era of digital and 3D. At CinemaCon, it introduced Perlux® Digital, a new screen line optimized for digital projection.

The Perlux Digital line is 30% whiter than the slightly off-white standard Perlux screen, and is intended for medium and large 2D screens and for 3D systems using active-glasses technologies and non-polarized light systems such as Dolby’s.

“It was easy at the beginning, because a lot of people just wanted a silver screen for 3D,” notes Harkness international sales exec Tony Dilley. “But quite a big part of DCI [Digital Cinema Initiatives] was the blacks being right and the whites being right. A white screen base should help.”

The Perlux digital line, which begins rolling out at the end of June, also features smaller .5 mm holes to minimize moiré patterns, visual interference between projected pixels and the screen pattern that can sometimes occur in cinemas with a short projector throw.

Dilley describes the impact of 3D on screen manufacturing as “seismic.” “It’s made us a lot of money, but it’s also caused a lot of headaches. We were out at 22 weeks at one time [for delivery]. Depending on territory, we’re now somewhere between eight and ten weeks.” Every business should have such problems.

Not only was d-cinema on the move at CinemaCon, so were butts in seats. With current motion-seat leader D-Box announcing numerous international deals for Hong Kong (Orange Sky Golden Harvest) and, in partnership with Germany’s FTT, for the Netherlands (Jogchems’ JT Bioscopen) and Germany (CinemaxX) just prior to the show, a new option presented itself to cinema owners in Las Vegas.

Feeling that “the time is right for a shift into a more immersive experience in the cinema marketplace,” MediaMation debuted their X4D Motion Effects Cinema Seat Series. The interactive attraction technology company adapted its theme-park line into a “modular, patent-pending design that greatly reduces the complexity, maintenance and cost,” the company noted. Each of their pneumatic seats has a master unit and three attached drones that allow side-to-side motion and back-to-front tilts. Built-in seat transducers (vibrators) and air blasts venting from the seat in front are standard features. Options including leg and neck tinglers, back and seat pokers, as well as scents. William Castle would’ve had a field day!

Asked about studio support, marketing representative Tracy Balsz confirmed that the industry standard SMPTE code is used to program the effects in sync with each and every frame. Utilizing the company’s own ShowFlow software, motion-control specialists work with producers and directors, giving them full control and final approval.

According to MediaMation president Alison Jamele, “Interest in the X4D Motion EFX cinema seats at CinemaCon was phenomenal. We have handshake deals with three theatres domestically, two full theatres (100 seats each) in China and 60-plus proposals from theatre owners all over the world, including the top chains. X4D Motion EFX theatres will start rolling out in June 2011.”

Over in the D-Box aisle, tradeshow news was all about extending already existing relationships. Among the circuits that added more seats to more of their theatres was Muvico in Rosemont, Illinois (30 seats), at the Parisian in West Palm Beach, Florida (36) and in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (12 more to meet initial demand). Larry Miller’s Megaplex Theatres added 60 at two Utah locations in addition to those already moving audiences at the District 20 in South Jordan and The Junction 13 in Ogden.

In preparation for the May opening of Emagine Royal Oak, Michigan, owner Paul Glantz ordered 29 MFX seats for two of the ten coming auditoria. “The addition of D-Box in our theatres has proved highly successful at all four existing locations,” Glantz said. Talking about his motivation for adding D-Box seating for the first time, RC Theatres CEO Scott Cohen noted, “We are dedicated to offering a one-of-a-kind entertainment experience to all our guests.” With 40 seats, Hanover Movies 16 and Wilkes Barre Movies 14 will be the first in the state of Pennsylvania to feature what D-Box calls “the immersive motion technology that completely transforms movie viewing.”