D-Cinema Qubed: Leading technology company anticipates high-frame-rate era
Giant-screen 4K 3D, server upgrades, high frame and even higher bit rates, high-speed Ethernet interface on IMBs, laser demos, software updates, another DCI certification: From Burbank, California, to Barcelona, Spain, and from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Mumbai, India, it has been a busy time for Qube Cinema (www.qubecinema.com).
“The industry is changing so rapidly these days and Qube is excited to be at the forefront of those changes,” confirms Rajesh Ramachandran, company president and chief technology officer. Qube Cinema’s international product line includes the Qube XP d-cinema server series, Qube Xi 4K Integrated Media Block, a suite of digital mastering solutions (QubeMaster Pro, Xpress 2 and Xport) and the Qube KeySmith KDM generation system. “We are committed to creating a seamless digital-cinema environment for exhibitors, filmmakers and post-production houses,” he describes the company goal, “with technologies that are innovative, flexible and cost-effective.”
Just before hitting Cinema India in late July, Ramachandran took some time to call in from Mumbai for an exclusive update for our readers. Among the big news items, he enthuses, is the new version 3.0 software for the Qube d-cinema servers that were released in June. “The new modularized software provides a common user experience for setup, operation and maintenance of both our XP-D and XP-I models,” Ramachandran explains. “The flexible architecture of our servers will provide current users of the XP-D with an easy upgrade and smooth transition to the XP-I and the 4K Xi IMB. This allows exhibitors to accommodate 4K resolution and higher frame rates as the DCI specs continue to evolve and in anticipation of the release of theatrical content from the likes of Peter Jackson and James Cameron. Our 3.0 software supports stereoscopic 3D systems, as well as accessibility devices such as onscreen titles, closed captioning, and systems for the visually impaired.” Having gained DCI compliance for the Qube XP-D in June and the version 3.0 software, in fact, “helps validate the XP-I server,” he reiterates.
Plenty of hard proof of powerful capabilities was otherwise delivered, going back to CinemaCon 2012. Two weeks after introducing Qube’s integrated setup that is “capable of both HD-4K uncompressed color grading and 2K-4K digital-cinema playback from a single server-IMB configuration” during the National Association of Broadcasters’ NAB Show, Ramachandran and the Qube team offered another series of industry firsts in the hallowed halls of Caesars Palace. The exhibition community observed multi-IMB synchronization, 2K 3D at 120 fps for each eye, and a joint demonstration with Barco of laser-illuminated projection. During the tradeshow, Qube delivered 4K DLP Cinema content from a single Qube XP-I server to two Qube Xi 4K media blocks integrated into Barco DP4K-32B projectors. (In March, the Wortham Giant Screen Theater at the Houston Museum of Natural Science became the first commercial installation of this single-server, two-projector 4K 3D system.)
This is made possible because the XP-I server features enough data throughput to play back content at a super-fast 1,000 Megabits per second, or four times the current DCI Mbps-rate specification (more on that below). “Our 4K 3D demonstrations have been done at 800 Mbps,” Ramachandran says with obvious pride. “With 2K content,” he elaborates, “the Qube Xi IMB can deliver up to 120 frames per second in 2K, and up to 30 fps with 4K content. Alternatively, this very high processing capability can be used to drive dual 4K or dual 2K DLP Cinema projectors from one DCP for stunning 4K 3D at up to 30 fps per eye. Due to the fact that we offer multiple projector and IMB synchronization, we can also play 2K 3D at 120 fps. That is something that nobody else has done before.”
At Caesars Palace, Qube also paired the XP-I with a Qube Xi 4K IMB to drive Barco’s prototype laser projector (aka “The Dragon”). “The brightness and high contrast were exceptional,” Ramachandran notes about the clips from Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol and other projected content. “Exhibitors need the high brightness and color saturation this delivers.” And, during the Filmmakers’ Lunch with Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, Qube Cinema powered 2D and 3D footage on three separate screens from a single XP-I server. The side-by-side comparison was automatically kept in sync by the Xi IMBs. The left and right screens featured Barco’s DP2K-20C projector with RealD single-projector stereoscopic configurations while the center screen was lit by two vertically stacked DP2K-20Cs that projected 3D test footage delivering a whopping 120 fps to each eye. (Germany’s Fraunhofer Institut had captured the special material with ARRI cameras at the same high frame rate.) “When you see HFR 3D at 48, or even 60 fps for each eye, the tremendous improvement is obvious over 3D at 24 fps,” Ramachandran believes. “But 3D at 120 fps blows everything else away.”
While making a clear case that Qube Cinema has the super-HFR technology at the ready, Ramachandran nonetheless believes that, at this point, 120 fps will be reserved for special venues like the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “Rather than exhibition and distribution, the issue of higher frame rates is more important for production and post-production because of the tremendous amount of data that they have to contend with,” he reasons. “In terms of what we’ve seen and how the practical implementation looks, we expect 60 fps will be a good place to be for movie theatres.”
As “high frame rates” and HFR have entered our day-to-day vocabulary, “high bit rates,” or HBR for short, are more recent additions to the general d-cinema conversation. The current DCI bit rate runs at 250 Mbps, but it was set seven years ago, Ramachandran reminds us. “When first establishing the DCI specs, the primary focus of the ‘golden eyes’ of our industry was to compress data as little as possible. Around the 250 Mbps mark, they determined the difference between compressed and uncompressed content was not discernible to the eye or was ‘visually loss-less.’ Just as importantly, the necessary throughput was available from medium-scale, three-drive, four-drive system servers rather than more expensive high-speed storage drives. In 2005, the sweet spot between storage cost and image quality was 250 Mbps. Nowadays, hard drives have become faster, cheaper and, very importantly, we are also looking at content beyond 24 fps. 250 Mbps created nearly loss-less images at 24 fps. With HFR 48 fps, for instance, we double the amount of data and the calculation would be that we double the bit rate along with that. Of course, we don’t want the hardware to be running at peak performance capacity of 500 Mbps but need to have a little headroom. This said, the general industry trend seems to be that we standardize 450 fps for HFR material,” he has observed.
Sounds like another case of technology developing faster than the specifications are keeping up. With all the recent innovations and advancements at Qube Cinema, Ramachandran seems like a good source to find out about the development process. How can companies even bring new technology to the market? Does compliance go on hold? Or is a product automatically feasible as long as it exceeds the current, albeit lower DCI specifications? The Hollywood studios and major distributors are allowing “special cases” into the market, he responds. “Without trials and field experience, we couldn’t have locked down any hardware configuration and software versions to send to the DCI for certification. Furthermore, once we are certified, we can’t make a change, as that requires re-certification. So, in the interest of both progress and expediency, we really need to get new products out into the field and use them in real-life situations.”
And indeed, in addition to the Qube XP series servers already feeding some 5,000 screens worldwide, 1,500 of which are to the DCI d-cinema standard with the balance going to the e-cinema base mostly installed in India, there is plenty of experience being gained. In closing, Ramachandran asserts that Qube Cinema will continue to be on the cutting edge. “We have trial installs of Qube XP-I in the United States, India and across Europe where we are getting practical working experience and feedback that will go into making our products even better.”