Technology tutorial: FJI looks at innovations showcased at CinemaCon


Film Journal International made the rounds of the tradeshow at CinemaCon in Las Vegas and reports back on the latest innovations and trends, as outlined by experts at some of the top cinema technology companies.

For Dave Duncan, manager of DLP Cinema and Professional Display for Texas Instruments, 2013 marks a major time of transition. “We’re close to 85,000 screens worldwide, and this is going to be another tremendous year,” he enthuses. “We have momentum in the marketplace worldwide that is shocking me. Every one of my customers [OEM manufacturers] is telling me that they have already exceeded their first-quarter forecasts. And you know why? The end of film is here—this year in the U.S., and no later than 2015 in the rest of the world.”

With that reality in mind, Duncan says, “We’re helping our customers finish phase one of the transition and starting the conversation about what we need to do next. I’m not saying that all the stuff they’ve just deployed needs to be obsoleted; I’m saying: How do we be a part of the inevitable, which is newer experiences for these newer Gen Z moviegoers?
On the opening day of CinemaCon, April 15, DLP Cinema issued a press release detailing some of the “newer experiences” the company is envisioning. “Students worldwide already interact with lessons and content via DLP-powered classroom projectors,” the company noted, “and thus it is not a stretch to foresee audiences using similar gesture control to interact with a movie at a DLP Cinema-equipped theatre, perhaps to direct a scene or select an alternate ending. Wearable displays are in the works that deliver a live, up-close level of augmented reality to individuals, which could also coordinate with a DLP Cinema projector for a personalized movie event. The power of DLP Cinema projection has also helped bring hologram-like renditions of famous entertainers to the stage, a capability that could also find its way to local theatres for a new type of live 3D performance. While the best viewing of 3D content necessitates glasses, even with the speed of DLP Cinema technology, that same imaging quickness could one day result in a glasses-free experience in theatres of the future.”

At the show, Duncan expanded on those propositions in an exclusive interview with FJI. “We’ve talked about alternative content for years, and it’s largely meant operas and sporting events. But that’s the easy stuff, the low-hanging fruit. But then you start thinking about something much more sophisticated: truly interactive gaming, theatre versus theatre, or choosing how the movie progresses, or using handheld devices in a way that’s not distracting but contributes to the story or provides more information.”

Movie purists of a certain age may balk at such second-screen diversions, but Duncan argues, “As technologists, we not only have to think about what interests me and you, but what interests the three-year-old who’s going to be 21. How is this world going to look five, ten, twenty years from now?”

Texas Instruments has already laid the groundwork for innovation, Duncan observes. “We have by definition the fastest microdisplay processor in the world, and we’re barely using a small amount of its capabilities. Our mirrors can move so fast that we can do things that are invisible to the naked eye that some sort of sensor can pick up. Now we just have to figure out these new, cool applications.”

The most recent Next Big Thing, high frame rates, got a mixed reaction when Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit premiered at 48 frames per second in December. “The Hobbit proved the potential,” Duncan contends. “Some people loved it, some people thought it was not what they were looking for in terms of a filmic look. I suspect that just like with 3D, people will continue to raise the bar. When James Cameron releases the next Avatar, I suspect that will raise the bar.”

One artistic option may be variable frame rates, Duncan suggests. “Maybe filmmakers will optimize the frame rate based upon the content or the scene. I’m already preparing my guys for when Mr. Cameron or someone else says: Can you do variable frame rate? I want to be able to say yes.”

“I don’t want to scare anyone,” says Jim Reisteter, general manager of the Digital Cinema Division of NEC Display Solutions of America. With the end of 35mm celluloid indisputably here. and given the fact that even those exhibitors who have converted to DLP Cinema projection already need to be evaluating the next evolution in (laser) sight and (multidimensional) sound, hearing those words provides much-needed reassurance. In fact, everything that Reisteter told FJI at NEC’s CinemaCon booth seems to be about securing a safe and more cost-effective future for exhibitors of all shapes and sizes.

“We are not trying to move everyone away from those thousands and thousands of projectors that they have so graciously purchased from us. Laser is not about that at all.” Instead, he continues, “It’s about providing technology options. You, the exhibitor, just spent millions and millions of dollars on conversion… The last thing you want to think about is junking those projectors that you spent time, effort and a lot of money on. We have a laser projector, but this is not a clever way to move the exhibition industry out of the Series 2 projectors.”

Proof positive is how NEC is very focused on its new NC900C d-cinema projector. As the “most compact” 2K DCI-certified projector on the market, and with its all-in-one Integrated Media Server (IMS) offering two Terrabytes of RAID5 storage, Reisteter confirmed that this S2K DLP Cinema chip projector has become the go-to solution for smaller screens and latecomers as well as for independents and art houses. “It is doing very, very well. The NC900C was originally designed for developing markets. As a global company, we are covering many different market segments around the world. What we found is, in the more developed markets too there are still many, many exhibitors that have not converted yet.”

For the U.S. alone, Reisteter estimates more than 3,000 screens. “Either they were asleep,” he muses about their owner-operators, “or they were in strong denial that film was never going to go away; or the VPF model represented a challenge for them and just didn’t fit them.” At this stage in the digital game, he has observed, the exhibitors looking to convert “range from those who have stellar credit but decided not to participate in the conversion because of philosophical reasons, to those that face some significant challenges in their business model.”

So, while the NC900C is “the lowest-cost projector out there—at US$30,000 suggested price, which includes lamp and lens and IMS—we also need to maintain flexiblity in our financing approach.” Reisteter points out that “NEC offers two options that cover a wide range of support for exhibitors. We have our own internal financing in place and we offer a third-party partnership as well.” And he believes that studios will be launching, “for lack of a better word, a second wave of VPF funding, especially for the smaller Series 2 projectors.”

Currently designed in a retrofit of its 4K projector chassis, where lamp and rod have been replaced with a fiber-coupled connection to a laser source, NEC also showed its prototype laser projector. Arriving directly from a demonstration during the prior week’s NAB Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Reisteter expects a formal announcement that laser product will be shipping late summer or early fall. “We are tinkering with price,” he admits. “For most exhibitors the real goal of switching to laser is to replace that Xenon lamp with something that is brighter, longer-lasting and, more importantly, less expensive to operate. With 5,000 lumens, we are aiming at a somewhat different market than the big one that the Christie folks showed [at AMC Burbank 16]. We are taking a different approach for several reasons. One, there are lot more smaller-sized screens. Secondly, we’re not trying to rush everybody out of using Xenon. In fact, we would be very pleased if exhibitors continue to be happy with their Series 2 projectors,” he assures. “Reality being reality, however, there is an expectation from all of us OEMs using DLP Cinema technology to continue to provide new technology.” NEC’s approach is what Reisteter calls “laser for the masses” as opposed to deploying laser-illuminated projection for large-format type theatres alone. “There is a good place for that technology, of course, but we want to have something more affordable.”

And for replacing current Xenon light, NEC has done just that already. “What is really getting exhibitors excited is that the NC900C uses a different solution with our Ultra High Pressure NSH lamps. They are a very proven light source that we are using across our installation- and business-projector product lines.” NSH is short for New Short-Arc High-Pressure, he elaborates, providing similar brightness levels to a 1.6kW Xenon lamp at lower power consumption with its 2x 350W NSH dual-lamp system. “When we showed the results to Texas Instruments, they were very impressed. And we also had the lamps approved by DCI, of course. No problem, absolutely and fully approved.” In addition to operating at about 35% lower cost and an automatic control that maintains constant brightness by adjusting the lamp power as it ages, Reisteter says their modular design make them easy to change, without needing much technical skill. “Anyone can take out the module, which is self-contained, sits on plastic reels and has the reflector built in. NEC is a bit of a rebel in this area,” he says, admitting to some raised eyebrows from potential customers. “But if you show exhibitors the math—the light source is cooler, you don’t have to vent it and this further facilitates boothless operation—they get excited.”

Reisteter also affirms, “Rather than simply adapting one of our previous projector models, we designed the NC900C from the ground up. We really set out with the goal to build this to be inexpensive. Not only cheaper to buy for the exhibitor, but also more economical to operate. Overall lower cost is a pretty big deal. That idea is very, very appealing.”

At Sony Digital Cinema as well, all eyes and several solutions were focused on a brighter and more affordable future. Sony also showed its Entertainment Access Glasses, of which more than 6,000 have been shipped already, and some amazingly versatile flat-screen displays. And their software experts demonstrated both the updated theatre management system that now comes in a “lite” version for up to five screens and a new platform for content exchange, online booking and buying called “xMassif.”

On the projector front, “our SRX-R515 is smaller and cheaper,” notes Oliver Pasch, Sony Europe’s sales director for digital cinema. “It’s the fully integrated 4K package with media block, 60 fps high-frame-rate capability, and more.”

FJI had the good fortune to tour the booth with Pasch before he jetted off to Baden-Baden, where the German-speaking cinema community gathered for their annual convention and tradeshow during the following week. “Since launching the SRX-R515 projector last year, we’ve seen tremendous interest in 4K projection, with the European market fully embracing the possibilities as well.” Sony has now shipped more than 15,000 of its 4K SXRD-chip systems worldwide, he reports, including more than 11,000 in the United States. Representing a 20% increase in 2012 shipments alone, the company’s eighth year of continuous growth ended with a 32% U.S. market share of digital screens.

“The SRX-R515 is commonly known as Rocky,” Pasch notes. “This has nothing to do with Sylvester Stallone, but with the Rocky Mountains. Every Sony digital cinema product is being developed under an internal code name named after a mountain.” He names two key advantages that the mighty yet not mountainous machine has to offer. In addition to the 4K multiplied pixel count, having an average 8000:1 contrast ratio means “if there is black in the movie, there is no light on the screen, leaving it completely dark.” Before turning to the lit-up part of the equation, Pasch reminds us that the DCI specifications call for a contrast of 2000:1. “Instead of a single Xenon lamp, we offer two sets of three High Pressure Mercury [HPM] lamps, which are normally associated with our business projectors. It’s a very common technology in that field, but the SRX-R515 marks the first time that this is used for cinema projection.”

There are a number of advantages, and Pasch begins with the most obvious. “If a single lamp fails, you’re done. If one of six lamps fails, you can still run the show. Again, unlike with Xenon, no security cloth is required for changing; everybody can do it. Our HPM lamps are fully DCI-approved and have some additional benefits in terms of cost of ownership. They are relatively inexpensive by comparison to Xenon, because of economies of scale that come with their use in our business applications. They have a higher efficiency as well and they need less cooling.”

In another significant cost-saving application, each set of lamps has its own power supply, Pasch advises. Depending on the actual light required on smaller screens, they can be shut down—the projector runs either two, four or all six lamps to maintain uniformity on the screen—and save on power consumption. “When a 2kW Xenon lamp requires less light output, you can turn down the current on the power supply, but the energy consumption essentially remains the same. There is no benefit.”

Not surprisingly, Pasch believes that this technology will be with us for a while. “This is not an interim solution. When I first heard about this projector about two years ago,” he admits, “I was like, ‘We are using a different light source and it is not laser?’ But obviously, there is a lot of knowhow at Sony across all divisions and deep experience from using these projectors in other applications. We strongly believe that our SRX-R515 is a very good solution for independent cinemas and smaller to mid-size screens.”

Sony Europe also debuted another solution for 3D screens during International Day. “We offer two systems based on circular polarization and silver screens, which are RealD and our own Sony Digital Cinema 3D,” Pasch summarizes for us. “And we now have a system that accommodates all the advantages of Dolby 3D as well,” including reusable glasses and choice of white and higher-gain screens. “It’s the same dual-lens set-up [that the SRX-R320 projector uses], but instead of polarization, we can now also use static color filters which Dolby developed specifically for Sony 4K.” The wheel is no longer required. “You only need the Dolby color wheel system when you have frame sequential 3D on a triple-flash system,” he clarifies. “With our 4K solution, we have both images for the right and for the left eye on the sensor at the same time. In this ‘over-and-under’ configuration that has been used on 35mm in the past, Sony’s dual 3D lens splits the corresponding images and simultaneously projects them on top of each other onto the screen. The color filters actually sit inside the lens because it is more efficient,” he adds.

Of course, no CinemaCon recap would be complete without talking about laser. “We are definitely looking into laser illumination as much as everyone.” This confirmed, Pasch cautions that it is a technical and a commercial challenge. “You need to create a light source that really offers the light you need, which at this point in time is still very expensive. I think laser will be about big screens at first because that’s where we can make it work… It will take time and scale.”

GDC Technology had good reason to celebrate at CinemaCon: According to a leading independent research firm, the pioneering Chinese company captured roughly 40.7% of total new digital-cinema server installations in North America in 2012, making it the market leader there for the first time in less than four years. GDC also continues to be the market leader in the Asia-Pacific region, with 46.1% of new d-cinema server installations last year.

In Las Vegas, GDC also announced a new strategic alliance with Technicolor to streamline the distribution process for Asia, allowing customers to benefit from high-quality drive replication without the expense of transporting drives across distant international borders or the complexity of managing multiple vendors.

Discussing the deal, GDC founder and CEO Dr. Man-Nang Chong declares, “it creates a better, more centralized service for the digital distribution of movies in Asia. It’s the right place at the right time, and will bring peace of mind to Asian exhibitors.”

“This strategic alliance means Technicolor and GDC can offer studio clients a single point of contact for in-country drive replication, distribution and KDM support, initially focusing on Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore with plans to expand across the region," says Claude Gagnon, president of Technicolor Creative Services Worldwide. Gagnon calls GDC “the ideal partner to enable us to offer content owners and distributors the most comprehensive set of digital-cinema services in the region.”

At the show, GDC was featuring its DCI-compliant SX-3000 Standalone Integrated Media Block (IMB) with the PSD-3000 Portable Storage Device. The SX-3000 IMB eliminates the need for a file server and can ease theatre operation. It includes a combined SMS in a compact format which can fit inside all types of DLP Cinema® projectors, including S2K projectors. Digital Cinema Packages can be easily ingested through USB, eSATA or Ethernet. With complete alternative-content support offering HDMI (for 2D and 3D content), 3D-SGI ports and live streaming, the SX-3000 IMB creates flexibility to display a wide variety of advertising or alternative content without using additional hardware. The PSD-3000 features three to four hot swappable data drives based on RAID 5 technology, allowing it to remain operational in the event of a single drive failure. And it can be connected to GDC’s TMS-1000 Theatre Management System to serve as an off-line content storage back-up. Multiple PSD-3000s can be connected to a single SX-3000 IMB, affording flexibility and scalability in storage at a fraction of the cost.

“Storage is always a headache, but now there’s no need for an expensive external file server,” Dr. Chong states. “Each PSD-3000 unit can store 25 full-length movies, so it’s especially useful for film festivals. It’s a game-changer.”

CinemaCon marked the return of a long-absent audio provider to the theatrical exhibition industry. DTS Inc. redefined multi-channel cinema sound by introducing digital on disc with the original Jurassic Park in 1993. In a mere six months at that time, Digital Theatre Systems (what the acronym originally stood for) successfully shipped and installed 876 DTS playback systems into movie theatres. Nonetheless, the visit had nothing to do with the release of the remastered 3D version of the Steven Spielberg adventure classic. Instead, DTS was in Las Vegas to talk about immersive or 3D sound and the object-based audio format that is at its base.

“Our MDA or Multi-Dimensional Audio is a very different approach from what you would typically expect from a company like DTS,” says J. Todd Baker, the company’s director, technical content services. “DTS has traditionally been a codec-based company that takes uncompressed audio and delivers it in a compressed format to where there is a pipe restriction. Then the data is decompressed back out and rendered to an array of speakers.” Reminding us that codec is short for ‘coder-decoder,’ he further elaborates. “Codecs essentially represent a delivery pipe from the mixing console all the way down to the right or left speaker in a theatre auditorium.”

By contrast, with the object-based approach of MDA, “we are recording the data that is generated from the tool that a mixer uses, very differently. With MDA, the ‘panning’ really occurs on the exhibition side when the content is rendered to one or five or 5,000 speakers.” With the word panning, Baker explains, audio engineers actually refer to the distribution of elements and allocation of where the audio objects are being placed. “Speakers become like pixels,” he draws a comparison. “The more speakers you have, the better spatial resolution you will get.”

Baker confirms that an MDA-based system is completely scalable. “If you want to make an investment and put in 40 to 50 speakers, you can. When that same content moves down the hall to another theatre where it plays out the rest of its time, and you didn’t make that kind of an investment in that auditorium, it would be rendered as 5.1 there, for instance. That will work perfectly fine because the same content feeds both set-ups. If you wanted to compete on speaker count or establish your own branded ‘premium’ experience, you can utilize MDA as the backbone as well. You can add as many speakers as you want. If your competitor down the street has a 24-speaker system, you can have a 50-speaker system.” While this is a clear marketing advantage, Baker also knows “that the economies of the exhibition space are very challenging, especially when it comes to infrastructure cost. Whereas other systems require a larger investment up front, MDA allows you to buy what you can afford and grow over time as your business becomes more successful.”

And exhibitors won’t have to buy any product from DTS to do so. Manufacturers don’t need to license anything either. The MDA specifications are free to integrate into their product lines, he says. “We’ve developed this standard as a way to make sure that all the product manufacturers have an opportunity to compete. Our goal for the cinema space is that proprietary systems are not taking over the entire eco system.” MDA can actually be rendered to any format, “as long as there are hooks into the systems.” Baker assures that includes wave field synthesis as offered by IOSONO, as well as Dolby Atmos and Auro 11.1 systems. “That’s what Multi-Dimensional Audio is—an open standard for delivering object-based audio from studio to exhibition. How that is all rendered is very, very flexible.”

“We are also talking to the studios,” he confirms. “They are very interested in making sure that whatever object-based format the industry is settling upon in terms of DCI compliance and other standards should remain an open source that everybody can access.” He also mentions that DTS is working with audio tool designers like Fairlight from Australia. “Our goal for MDA is to give filmmakers the tools necessary to create object-based audio in a straightforward way, without having to pay any royalties… Sound designers are now mixing in 7.1 and 5.1 formats, in Dolby Atmos or Auro 3D because that’s what the producers have told them to do.” By contrast, the MDA approach includes the creation of what Baker calls an MDA mezzanine file. “The process is very similar to how we approach streaming content today, where we have this mezzanine master from which we render all formats. Again, there is no codec involved until you get to some type of choke point where you need a compression format. Instead, we are simply ‘packing’ the audio information and associated object metadata. Where the object is located, its spread and size, along with the level, gain or volume of the object—those are all the items that MDA carries as metadata, without having applied any compression or anything proprietary. On the decoder side, a cinema processor that has implemented MDA then sends the information back out, which is called ‘parsing.’ Since it is aware of the number of speakers that are available as a resource and where those speakers are located, MDA places the objects within that space.”

The speaker set-up chosen for the demo in the DTS suite was very similar to an Auro 11.1 channel placement. Using the same MDA bit stream, Baker and his colleagues effectively demonstrated how the same content plays out in different channel formats without any necessary modification. “At DTS we have a solution for the home that can render for this many speakers,” Baker explains about advancements already being made there. “We also have post-processing solutions that render additional layers psycho-acoustically to make it sound like there are more speakers than what you really have.” While this is clearly not a goal for the cinema space, which maintains all artistic integrity, this author felt it indicates where the business model lies for DTS. “Our business model is further down the stream,” Baker confirms. “We specialize in taking content and getting it to the end user. Our strengths lie in the television space, in streaming media and hard-disk spaces.”

MDA is not about DTS alone, he concludes in closing. “While we provided the founding elements of MDA, this is now becoming a lot bigger than a single company. It’s really about making sure that any vendor has the opportunity to create solutions for the cinema market space.” In contrast to a proprietary system that goes “all the way from console to speaker,” as Baker sees it, developing an open standard like MDA facilitates a choice between how certain tools do certain things in audio processing. “We feel that it is very important that the system that feeds audio content creation, distribution and exhibition should be powered by an open standard.”

Authors’ note: On April 17, Barco and Auro Technologies officially joined DTS in announcing their joint desire “to drive the development of an open-format approach to producing immersive object-based cinema sound. Their efforts represent a collective desire to protect exhibitors’ freedom of platform choice, ensuring their ability to play any movie regardless of which 3D audio system they procure.” For information on how Dolby Atmos has been responding to the call for compatibility, please refer to our May 2013 feature.

“In the space of three short years, we’ve become the other guy,” Steve Shurtz, technology director for EXP cinema systems at Meyer Sound, declared in Las Vegas. “It’s an industry still dominated by JBL, but they’ve owned that market solidly for 40 years. We’re now the other consideration, and that’s not too bad after three years.”

Meyer loudspeakers are installed at the new Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, and the high-end Arclight Cinemas in La Jolla, Calif., and Cinetopia in Beaverton, Oregon, and at such state-of-the-art post-production facilities as Skywalker, Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox, Warner Bros. and Universal. Internationally, they have a strong presence in theatres in Germany and South Korea and post houses in India and France.

The rise of new immersive sound formats has been “real beneficial” for Meyer, Shurtz reports. “They all need lots of loudspeakers, and we’ve actually developed some special speakers, like our new HMS-12. One of the issues with the ceiling speakers is to get wide coverage. This has a 100 by 100 pattern which works really well for ceilings, and it’s only 46 pounds—it actually weighs a lot less than many of our competitors’ ceiling speakers but still has all the advantages of a built-in power amp, a 48-volt system, and shielded balance line to each surround.”

Shurtz notes that Dolby Atmos’ 3D audio system “requires each surround to be a home run back to the controls. That’s the way we always do it anyway… [Founder] John Meyer’s religion is linearity. What goes in comes out. We go way out of our way with the engineering. You can only do that with a self-powered speaker.”

Though NATO has expressed some concern about the ramifications of competing 3D sound systems from Dolby and Barco’s Auro, Shurtz sees an upside. “A new sound format takes about five years to work out the issues, the bugs. It’s actually a good thing that the industry has two competing formats—it doesn’t allow a monopoly to be created, and it makes stronger players out of both of them. It’s still a birthing process for these formats.”
As for Meyer Sound, “we’re format-neutral. We’re selling to both sides. Dolby has been really supportive in terms of post-production and putting us in the Dolby Theatre. And equally, Wilfried van Baelen, the owner of the patents of Auro 3D, is putting Meyer into his own facilities as well as helping Indian and other facilities to get going and recommending us. I think both understand that we have a really well-engineered product that these formats in particular show off better than ever.”

Harkness Screens held a special press event to introduce its two new innovative applications to help exhibitors plan and maintain their auditorium specs. The Digital Screen Modeller is a 3D simulation tool that allows architects, engineers and exhibitors to visualize and optimize digital-cinema scenarios in a virtual environment. The information-rich model rapidly created by this tool enables project stakeholders to make more informed decisions about digital-cinema screen, projector and lamp choices before they’re even installed, to ensure that they comply with industry-standard brightness levels. The Digital Screen Modeller is also ideal for planned or proposed retrofit and refurbishment projects to visualize the impact on brightness levels and operating costs in existing environments.
Harkness technical services manager Matt Jahans guided the audience through the user-friendly tool, illustrating how a theatre planner can design a virtual auditorium, adjusting the type of screen, seat configuration, curvature of the screen and other factors to achieve optimal light levels on the entire surface.

Also debuting in Las Vegas was Harkness’ Digital Screen Archiver, a secure, cloud-based data-capture and reporting tool that aids projectionists, managers, engineers and exhibitors to maintain their digital-cinema auditoria. The Archiver allows key d-cinema data such as auditoria geometry, power settings, lamp life and onscreen brightness to be captured in a standardized format during maintenance visits. Extensive back-end reporting tools allow those responsible for maintaining cinema auditoria to monitor the performance of their entire screen portfolio through one source, schedule planned and reactive maintenance visits, and benchmark screen performance against key industry standards. Both the Modeller and the Archiver are available as free iPhone apps.

RealD also had some big screen news: new “Precision White Screen” technology for cinema projection, combining 2D white screen performance with the ability to project polarized 3D images.

Designed to deliver improved 2D and 3D presentations with wide viewing angles similar to white screens of equivalent gain, Precision White Screen technology features edges four to five times brighter than a standard silver screen. According to RealD, this results in 40 percent more total light coming off the screen, providing more uniform brightness than a standard silver screen.

Precision White Screen technology is expected to be available exclusively to exhibitors, production and post-production facilities utilizing RealD 3D cinema systems initially through Ballantyne Strong’s Strong-MDI.