Towards the future: New technologies hold promise for a livelier cinema experience


Ten years ago, digital-cinema projection, still not ubiquitous, was viewed as the ultimate game-changer in our industry. Never before had there been such a shift in cinema processes or technology affecting every exhibitor. True, there have been big evolutions in sound, seating and concessions—but these real enhancements still were not a change mandated to occur in a relatively short window.

At its core, digital projection is both simple (binary code of ones and zeros) and complex (a string of electronic processes working in harmony). Digital cinema promised to offer up a tremendous amount of flexibility, precision and revenue streams which 35mm simply could not. And it has delivered. Most all exhibitors have created a massive undertaking converting their film projection to digital. In the last ten years, both exhibitors and manufacturers have invested millions in bringing this new technology to each booth in each multiplex. Even most USA community single screens and drive-Ins have now made the move to digital, or are eyeing a model to do so.

Nostalgia aside, arguably all would agree that the images produced by new projectors marketed today are overwhelmingly superior to the 35mm gear that preceded them. In fact, digital cinema is viewed as a tremendous success enabling the finest images, formats and distribution. Many operators specifically promote the digital aspect of their business. But like any technology, what at first seemed the greatest change one could imagine is now commonplace and expected. So what new experiences can exhibitors and patrons alike expect to see in the future from the International Cinema Technology Association manufacturers?

Like most companies, not just one single aspect of business sets you apart from your competitors. It’s the sum of all parts which contribute to a superior experience. It’s the building and compounding of one component on another which ultimately drives the most success. Technological superiority, cleanliness, customer service, stadium seating, dynamic sound, concession variety…all of these individual portions done well together create the experience for the client and patron. So it will not be one single advancement but a combination and layering of new experiences that will be offered to moviegoers to satisfy the demand for us to reach higher.

Certainly, laser-generated light is the next move forward in projection, and pages could be dedicated to this one advancement alone. Laser will offer a dual benefit to exhibitors of creating a brighter and more stable image while also positively impacting costs. A new laser projector will likely initially cost more than the corresponding xenon-based unit. But operational costs attributed to both decreases in replacement lamps and energy consumption are real and are part of the laser story. While xenon light more than adequately performs, laser projection is about exploiting efficiency and stability. Because manufacturers will be able to prove a better product along with value and efficiency, it’s expected that laser projection will also become the standard at the right time.

Immersive audio, like Barco’s Auro 11.1 and Dolby’s Atmos, is one of the new technologies making a splash into the market just recently. Most exhibitors are aware of the new sound format which essentially creates a greater number of discrete audio channels distributed among a greater number of speaker arrays, namely height and overhead in addition to the surround model commonly in use. While an argument could be launched on whether consumers will pay a premium simply for the singular experience, exhibitors agree that this audio technology, like luxury seating and giant screens, is another way to layer an additional sensory dimension in their premium auditoriums.

Perhaps some of the most exciting opportunities are being created outside of the actual auditorium environment. LED walls are becoming more prevalent both inside and outside of the theatre’s four walls. As the technology increases and matures, costs are coming down, making this customer favorite more affordable. And as seen at Cinemark’s Apple Valley, Calif. and Reading Cinemas’ Fairfax, Virginia locations, these giant walls of bright color can be employed with existing marquees to make a statement about the facility even before patrons walk in the door. Different platforms, shapes, sizes and resolution mean a customizable application can be created for any space or idea.

Exhibitors are increasingly able to parlay involvement with their high-tech vendor/partners to bring home technologies initially developed for sectors other than cinema. Pixel-mapping is a spectacular program that charts a detailed image of any vertical surface. It specifically maps the surface’s every variant such as windows, columns, ledges or aesthetics, and then creates a number of custom projection programs exploiting those variants. This can be done on both small and large scales, meaning it can be employed inside the lobby or just as effectively on the side of a multi-story building. Virtual-reality systems are another attention-grabber which, via projection and cameras, transport images of patrons into other different nearby environments. Envision a patron walking down a theatre corridor and ultimately seeing his/her real-time image in a famous movie scene, or using an advertiser’s product. 3D holograms will be used to mimic and interact with characters, celebrities and patrons. As digitization influences our everyday life, it will continue to truly play key roles through every step of the movie, from capture to exhibition.
These concepts are designed to only enhance, advance and pay homage to the excellent theatre environment currently in place. It’s the manufacturer’s obligation to continue providing inspiration and ideas for our clients’ evaluation.

Scott Friedberg is VP of Sales, Digital Cinema, North America, at Barco.