Laser focus: With new technologies, Barco proposes premium cinema experiences for all
“It is important that the market gets a good view and perspective on what is possible and coming,” Wim Buyens tells Film Journal International about the newest technology on hand and latest developments in store for cinemas at Barco. “We want to show people what is possible right now, and let them feel and envision the possibilities. Then, later on, we will present them with different solutions tailored to the types of auditoriums that they have.”
Buyens, senior VP of the company’s global Entertainment Division, which covers events, corporate A/V, digital cinema and more, exclusively briefs our readers about a company-wide effort for providing “premium-screen” solutions. “It’s a combination of visuals and audio together that creates the most immersive experience,” he elaborates. “We are making sure that the bundling is flexible, dependent on the size of screen and what our customers want.” After all, for Barco, great and immersive technology is not “just for a few customers, but for all exhibitors who want to invest in a special experience. We believe that every cinema will have premium-experience screens, not in all their auditoriums but in several of them. It is definitely a broader focus and market than just large-format exhibitors alone.”
Nonetheless, the largest of screens are a great place to start when it comes to showing off innovations and improvements. Enhanced 4K DLP Cinema 3D (http://scr.bi/barcodcin), Auro-3D multi-channel and truly multi-dimensional sound (for access to Barco’s White Paper, go to http://scr.bi/barcoauro3d), along with projection at higher frame and higher compression rates (very smartly dubbed “ultra-reality), are all part of the package. And then, shining brightly in the not-so-far-away future, we are looking at the amazingly promising light output from laser sources.
The Jan. 9 world premiere of a fully functional laser-illuminated prototype projector was far from the only first that the Barco team of engineers and designers from Belgium, along with their North American colleagues in sales and marketing, showcased in Galveston, Texas. The “full complement of immersive digital-cinema innovations driving the future of cinema” included the first demonstration of true DLP Cinema Enhanced 4K resolution 3D, the first 3D comparison of high-frame-rate content (48/60 fps and at various compression rates), the first 4K digital versus 15/70 film “shootout” at full 4:3 giant-screen aspect ratio, and the first-time integration of Auro-3D sound into a large-format film venue. And you’re reading about it all here first in FJI.
Barco co-presented the Moody Gardens Digital Cinema Symposium jointly with the generous hosts at the public, nonprofit, educational facility that lends its name (www.moodygardens.com), and with D3D Cinema, the Chicago-based provider of complete digital solutions and services to the museum and attraction industries worldwide.
For the second year in a row, industry experts with an interest in giant screens—from the institutional and destination segments as well as from general theatrical exhibition—gathered in front of the 60 by 84-foot main screen (18.3 m x 25.6 m) of the MG3D Theater, which hosts some 275,000 visitors at 3,000 shows annually. Dubbed “the largest in Texas” for 3D, Moody Gardens recently switched from branded 15/70 film projection to a Barco-projected and polarized, 3D-enabled, Qube-served digital solution.
In another industry first, one Qube XP-I server and two Xi 4K IMBs in Barco DP4K-32B projectors delivered a single, high-bit-rate, stereoscopic 4K DCP.
Even before any discussions of sight and sound enhancement, Moody Gardens general manager Robert Callies made his case for “the value and savings of moving to digital.” At the opening-day panel, Callies brought numbers for backup. MG3D attendance was up some 20% because of a higher turnover of films over the course of a day and from the expansion of traditional offerings into new content. In addition to savings on print, shipping and staff costs similar to (and sometimes higher than) those experienced by commercial theatrical exhibition and distribution, licensing costs connected with branding also fell, with electrical dropping as much as 70% over the heavy-duty 15/70 equipment, he noted.
Not too surprisingly then, event moderator Toby Mensforth of Mensforth & Associates assured attendees that “unless you have lived in a giant-screen cave, digital is here and the future looks bright.”
That future already exceeds 55,000 ANSI Lumens, but Todd Hoddick, Barco’s VP for entertainment, North America, was even more precise in his outlook. After holding Guinness world-record status as the brightest single projector with 43,000 ANSI Lumens since December 2010, Barco has upped more than the amperage. New bells and whistles include high frame rates; true 4K resolution on each of two projectors for the right and left eye for 3D, delivered at a high image-compression rate of 250 Mbit/per second from server to projector (and as high as 500 Mbps for the 4:3 format); and creating height and height reflections for true dimensional sound. For Hoddick, these are all “objects that enable storytellers in their storytelling. And a means for you to run your business. Our business is not to get into your business.” Owning their equipment, he opined, empowers large-format venues in particular “to fit their mission, and to improve upon and differentiate the audience experience.”
Among the audience of more than 300 registrants from ten countries were representatives from AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark, Cinecitta (Nuremberg, Germany), Cinergy Cinemas, Cobb Theatres, Empire Theatres (New Glasco, Nova Scotia), Fairchild Cinemas, Landmark, Malco, Moore Theatres, Northshore 8 Cinema (Portland, Texas), Premiere Cinemas, Rave and Santikos. Technology, service and content providers present included Ballantyne, Cinedigm Entertainment Group, Christie, Dolby, Doremi, E&E Theater Services, Franklin Designs, Harkness, IMAX, Kooptech-ASL, MacGillivray Freeman Films, MasterImage 3D, Moving iMage Technologies, National Geographic, NEC, Projectiondesign, Qube, RealD, Schneider Optics, Sony Electronics (check out next month’s edition featuring an interview with Peter Ludé), Strong Technical Services, Texas Instruments, Tri-State Theatre Supply, Universal Cinema Services, Ushio and XpanD, to name some with relevance to the cinema business.
“We are trying to educate and answer questions,” Hoddick stated, further setting the Barco tone of collaboration and transparency prevalent throughout the two-day proceedings. Introducing the demonstration of the laser-illuminated prototype projector, Hoddick noted, “Outside of Barco, this is the first time that anyone is seeing this. And we are doing it in front of our competitors. We are inviting everyone into the conversation.”
Joining the screening required being wrist-banded after signing an “experience at your own risk”-type waiver that the FDA requires when it comes to lasers. In addition to their cost having to come down substantially, this is another one of the hurdles en route to seeing the laser light. In response, Barco joined with other industry leaders in founding Laser Illuminated Projector Association (LIPA, www.lipainfo.org), advocating necessary revisions to outdated regulations that do not apply to our industry. “The lasers inside are no more dangerous than Xenon,” Hoddick reassured.
The demo on the 72-foot-wide (22 m) Harkness Unity 1.0 gain standard screen via Doremi server went off without a glitch, even though Buyens had cautioned this author earlier about what proof-of-concept means. “You are going to see a working system that is doing what it should do: not anything odd, but where the colors are right, the light output is strong.” Adding with a chuckle, “And it doesn’t take up an entire room.”
The three individual laser beams, which Barco sends through a series of prisms until they bounce off the DMD chip, surely lit up the room with screen luminance of 22 foot-lamberts measured on a 100-foot throw (30.5 m). To be clear, Barco’s design does not use interlacing lasers to create the image on screen, but quote-unquote “simply” replaces the traditional Xenon bulb with the solid-state, uniform and long-lasting source of laser illumination. No matter how much Barco’s golden-eyed team talked about inherent artifacts that needed to be addressed by “de-speckling,” and no matter how hard an equally critical seat neighbor tried to point out image flaws caused by air conditioning, none were visible to me (an observation later shared by many). What blew me away, however, other than the overall brightness, amazing sharpness and clean crispness of the images, was the expanded range in color gamut that laser can facilitate. And the superbly rendered wet “shine” on the noses of Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo. (What can I say, I love animals and was reminded of my dogs.) If James Cameron could make his next two Avatar adventures even bluer, laser would be the way to go! Come to think of it, The Abyss might benefit from a laser-lit re-release too.
With Cameron and Peter Jackson very actively pushing existing standards, and Barco making sure to facilitate their wishes, DCI specifications come to mind. “Some rules do not yet exist,” Buyens readily admits. “There is no DCI regulation regarding lasers. We are looking at a large audience, targeting all cinemas worldwide. So DCI compliance is a mandatory piece [of the development process].” Barco is trying “to be in the driver’s seat with the studios, [talking with many of them] to see what should be next and making sure that all the necessary requirements will be included in the DCI specifications,” he insists. “Our customers have to be assured that this technology is secure and future-proof.”
“Premium experiences might want to go above and beyond some of the DCI requirements,” adds Hoddick. “Right now at Cinemark in their XD theatres, it has to be six foot-lamberts for 3D,” he says of light output. “The image quality that this generates, and the experience that audiences have, is above [DCI compliance]… We want to be able to deliver more light in that it provides a more natural, immersive experience.” So, “in some places we make the extra effort for the audience to go above and beyond,” he says. “Just because it isn’t mandated, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”
“We can get one hell of a quality picture,” concurs Buyens. “Studios have reacted very positively,” he assures. “We are buying the lasers—Barco is not a laser manufacturer—and put them together in a very special way. Different companies have come up with different ways of implementing lasers. Ours was designed by people with projectors in mind, not just lasers. We own the technology and can replicate it. Optically, it’s very efficient with maximum output from minimum input.” In other words, “we are not putting in a lot of lasers to get a lot of light, but only a few lasers with a lot of light coming out. Design and engineering is where our expertise lies as a projector manufacturer.”
That same expertise guarantees that compatibility is Barco’s “number-one development goal.” Buyens indicates these advances will be designed as retrofits for Barco Series II projectors. “We are not throwing in a technology that is disruptive to what has been installed,” he reassures. “We don’t want anyone to think that—after having spent millions and millions—they have to go out there in two or three years and buy completely new systems. No. Barco’s approach to these innovations is to be retrofittable. People will have the option to choose different modules depending on how much light output they want to use. We want people to explore what a premium experience means to them. For Barco, it is all about creating technology and higher standards that elevate moviegoing to electrifying new levels.”