Wide-open future: Exploring the exciting possibilities of tomorrow's cinema experience


With digital cinema expected to achieve a global majority towards the end of the year, no one can have any doubt that the future of cinema is digital. While most of the focus has been on the challenges, primarily financial, associated with the digital-cinema conversion, the time has come to look at the paradigm shift it enables, creating a fantastic opportunity for a new audience-centric exhibition model.

The cinema of the future can be a true multimedia entertainment, business and educational center, and an important local cultural hub. It has some of the advantages enjoyed by event formats, such as sports and live music, with the value of social experience an important dimension. Many exhibitors have experimented with alternative content, for example, but we have only begun to scratch the surface.

A true understanding of your customers will be key to enabling this new audience-centric exhibition model. We could easily devote an entire article to this exciting topic, and there are some great examples from other industries that we could learn from. The main focus of this article, however, is on some of the technology enablers for the cinema of the future. It’s all about a creating a premium immersive experience!

The cinema future is…bright?

Yes, it is, but it’s more than just brightness. Historically, the large-screen movie experience has been what drew audiences to the cinema. Few of us have the room in our homes to project an 80-foot immersive image and share it with more than 500 friends. This large-screen experience will remain at the core of the cinema of the future, but it will need to be taken to the next level, no longer being about movies alone.

As mentioned above, creating a premium immersive experience is essential. In the large-screen environment intrinsically linked with cinema, image (projection) quality is a critical aspect, and many image-quality parameters have an impact. Sure, “4K” has received ample attention in digital-cinema projection during recent years. The fact that resolution is higher when you have four times as many pixels available is undeniable.

However, it is important to understand that resolution is only one piece of the image-quality puzzle. In a darkened environment such as a cinema auditorium, the human eye is much more sensitive to contrast (“true black”) and color (deep saturation). In a setup where content is moving across a large screen and your head is moving to follow the onscreen action, high temporal resolution, also known as “High Frame Rates,” is crucial. This has also garnered considerable attention with High Frame Rate 3D features being announced by directors James Cameron and Peter Jackson. And of course, brightness, brightness, brightness is of critical importance, as the recent controversy over dark 3D images amply demonstrated. A crisp and bright picture on the cinema screen is enabled by a sophisticated combination of technologies that make digital-cinema projectors state-of-the-art devices.

Let’s go to the Talkies…
As discussed, the image quality that digital-cinema projection systems can provide is critical to creating an immersive, premium experience. According to George Lucas, “sound is 50 percent of the movie experience” and, as such, audio is the next logical element for the cinema of the future. In contrast to the digital-cinema revolution, which has enhanced the visual experience, cinema audio has evolved very slowly. In fact, other than adding a few more speakers to surround the audience with sound, the past 20+ years have not produced any significant innovations that can take us to the next level in cinema audio.

Fortunately, this is now about to change with 3D Audio, which is the next logical step required to usher in the ultimate immersive, premium cinema experience. When experiencing 3D Sound, it’s clear that an immersive sound field creates more of an emotional response in the audience than image alone.

Sound is related to emotion. Even when environmental sounds are heard unconsciously, they can have an impact on our emotional attitude and behavior. People feel connected with the environment through sound, and the more natural the sound, the closer the connection. Audio 3D can deliver this connection by expanding the 2D plane of surround sound into to a fully natural 3D sound experience, making the whole experience more natural, and thus immersive.

The cinema of the future needs to take the immersive experience to the next level and extend it from the large-screen image to the sound experience. A crucial step in actually enabling 3D audio for the moviegoing audience is finding a format that is compatible with the well-developed audio-ecosystem in movie-making and cinema exhibition. From on-set audio capturing, over in-studio audio-mixing, to in-theatre audio-playback in a transition phase, people are hesitant to support a revolution unless it provides the safety net of backwards compatibility. This technology exists in Auro-3D, an innovative 3D audio technology from Barco that fulfills these requirements and is already installed in leading post-production facilities and with exhibitors on three continents.

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it…
With the large-screen immersive experience, the auditorium will remain the cornerstone of the cinema of the future. However, the audience of the future will expect more. Future generations expect to be informed, connected and entertained 24/7, and they have many things that are competing for their attention. For cinema owners, it will no longer suffice for the show to start when the curtains open. The immersive, premium experience starts the moment the audience walks through your door. In fact, for those creative futurists among you, this experience could start the moment cinema-goers drive into the parking lot. Thus, why not expand the cinema experience to new “locations,” such as the parking lot, lobby, theatre bar and corridors, as well as “time periods,” including pre-show, post-show, weekday, morning, evening? After all, one of the greatest assets of a cinema theatre is its location and infrastructure. These are all opportunities to reach out to your audience to inform them of upcoming releases while also taking the opportunity to learn more about them.

There are some quick wins to be had in creating this extended experience in the cinema of the future. Theatres around the world have already been expanding from feature film-only to alternative content. The success of these events can be maximized when the experience around the content is equally enhanced. There is no reason why going to see a sports game on a large-cinema screen can’t offer similar entertainment advantages as seeing the event live. For example, what’s to stop you from letting your audience tailgate in your parking lot?

Long gone are the days when the cinema canvas was the only screen in the building. Digital signage is opening up the rest of the building—the lobby, corridors and façades—to visualize content for the purpose of both entertaining and informing your audience. But it doesn’t stop there: The massive success of smart phones means that the majority of your audience is now walking in your building with a connected screen. Why not make use of all of these screens to distribute your trailers, announcements, messaging and coupons, as a way to grow the cinema-going experience for your audience? And we’re not just talking about one-way visualization or communication; it doesn’t end there. Consider letting your audience truly participate in the experience, which can be as simple as one-off voting on a future release, or as robust as following the moviegoing profile of all your customers?
This is where we can get into really creative solutions, and the above are only three basic examples. No doubt, ten years from now, we will walk into a cinema and experience things that we haven’t even imagined.

Where do you want to go?
In summary, the cinema of the future will still have the same attractive feature that has drawn audiences to theatres already for 100 years: high-quality movies on the large screen, wrapped in a “fun night out” experience for all moviegoers. This will, however, expand in all dimensions and evolve into a truly complete entertainment experience, starting the moment the cinema-goers arrive at your site, and enabling continuous interaction and ubiquitous content. Let the ideas flow!

Barco, a global technology company, designs and develops visualization products for a variety of selected professional markets, including digital cinema. For more information, visit www.barco.com.