CinemaCon tech in review: Immersive experiences, laser projection, audio enhancements and rockin’ seats among the trends at NATO show


“Immersion” was arguably the number-one technology buzzword at March’s CinemaCon gathering in Las Vegas, and we’re not just talking about the new immersive audio systems from Dolby and Barco that are competing for the business of motion picture exhibitors. No, “immersion” also applies to the strategy of capturing the audience’s attention from the moment they enter the lobby and then extending that experience with a more elaborate environment inside the auditorium. “Immersion” also applies to the goal of delivering brighter and sharper 3D images, as manufacturers pitch the next generation of projectors utilizing superior (and more costly) laser technology.

One company at CinemaCon that eagerly embraced the idea of total immersion was Barco, which showcased its new “CinemaBarco” concept off-premises at the Cinemark Century 16 South Point and XD theatre at the South Point Hotel and Casino. The press demo began in the lobby, the place where “the magic starts,” in Barco’s words. The lobby configuration included a central 30-foot screen and several smaller display screens, in this case all promoting Muppets Most Wanted. There was also an interactive video wall which offered visitors the fun of waving their hands to, for instance, clear away the ice in a Frozen promo. According to VP of global entertainment Todd Hoddick, Barco’s lobby technology would also enable customers to use their cellphones to interact with digital posters, buy tickets, and post photos to Facebook.

Once inside the auditorium, the preshow fun continued. Barco unveiled iD (Interactive Dimension) interactive technology from its partner Audience Entertainment A racing game was projected, and audience members were instructed to raise their hands in the air and collectively control the onscreen car’s steering through a twisty course. The idea is to blend novel new advertising opportunities with an audience-bonding experience. As Audience Entertainment CEO Barry Grieff noted, “Technology both connects and isolates. We have a solution.” Grieff expects iD to roll out on 300 screens by year’s end.

Barco’s new “CinemaVangelist” Ted Schilowitz, former executive with Red cameras, was on hand to bring out the “kid” in all the movie-loving guests in attendance. He oversaw the big reveal of the presentation: “Escape,” two additional screens on each side of the main screen, a distant kin to the old Cinerama format. Content included repurposed scenes from the 2011 Dominic Cooper drama The Devil’s Double, a very brief glimpse of a tri-screen moment from Fox’s upcoming thriller The Maze Runner, and a longer look at the format’s potential with an excerpt from Maze director Wes Ball’s visually stunning short Ruin. Also very striking was a triptych of footage shot at the Burning Man festival. Whether the format will be embraced by filmmakers for split-screen montages or used as a multiplex equivalent of a theme-park ride, “Escape” certainly qualified as one of CinemaCon 2014’s top novelties. The question remains as to what kind of sustained excitement it stirs in the creative community—the key to getting exhibitors to invest in those extra screens and the hardware to fill them.

Barco also used the event to showcase its first commercially available 6P 60,000-lumen laser-illuminated projector, which already has a U.S. customer in Cinemark. The company screened footage from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 4K 3D at 48 frames per second, with a brightness level of 14 foot-Lamberts, along with a clip in 2D at 60 frames per second. (The 3D system was from Dolby.) And, needless to say, the sound set-up was Barco’s immersive Auro 11.1.

Barco’s competitor Christie also used CinemaCon as the occasion to unveil its new 6P 4K laser projector, whose hourly demos on the tradeshow floor were rapidly overbooked. The Christie 6P, which the company plans to roll out in early 2015, also generates 60,000 lumens and 14 foot-Lamberts of brightness. The demo included the 3D trailer from Disney’s Frozen, looking brighter and better than ever, and the cutting-edge high-frame-rate trailer from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Christie noted at the demo that audience preferences for the 3D version of a film have dropped from 67% in 2009 to 42% last year, a drop they blamed on low brightness and other quality issues like ghosting, hotspots and speckle. The 6P projector, which exclusively utilizes Dolby 3D color separation technology, remedies those problems thanks to its simultaneous left and right-eye imaging via two projector heads, with dramatically increased efficiency to boot.

A third major projector manufacturer, NEC, was also showcasing a new laser projector at CinemaCon, but with other goals in mind. “NEC is taking a different view of the world than the other DLP guys,” stated Jim Reisteter, general manager of the Digital Cinema Division. “We’re not saying they have a wrong strategy, we just have a different view of the world. We believe that there are still, in the United States alone, 1,000 to 3,000 screens that have not yet converted. They’ve not converted for a number of reasons, and we believe a smaller, affordable laser projector which has a very low cost of ownership would make sense to people like that. And we believe that worldwide there are still a lot of screens that are 30 feet or less. Hence, we have a smaller laser projector.” That projector is the NC1100L with a built-in laser light source. NEC says its new model is capable of delivering 14 foot-Lamberts of light on a 1.8:1 gain screen up to 36 feet.

Unlike laser projectors twice as expensive, the NC1100L will retail for under $50,000, and Reisteter makes sure potential customers know that comes with a huge savings in lamp and HVAC costs—and a minimum guarantee of three years and 10,000 hours (which may yet be extended).

“If you turn the clock back to 2006, 2007,” Reisteter recalls, “that’s when the first Series Ones [digital projectors] were going in. At that time, they typically were more powerful a projector than the exhibitor needed, and the selection was fairly limited. In talking to our customers, we believe there are a number of them that are very keen on replacing their Series Ones with laser projectors.”

Reisteter expects the NC1100L projectors will be ready to ship in late April and he’s already taken some orders. He also predicts great response in Latin America, a market that’s been slow to convert to digital. (K.L.)

“Globally we are at 17,000 projectors,” Oliver Pasch confirmed about the market share of Sony’s SXRD chip technology as CinemaCon numbers revealed the digital penetration rate amounting to no less than 87% globally (Europe: 90.1%; North America: 93%). According to David Hancock, director and head of film and cinema, Screen Digest, IHS Technology, that very same share could increase by another 10% at year’s end. (Look for additional insights and the latest numbers in Hancock’s exclusive contribution coming up next month.) While “there is actually not an official figure” for his home turf as director of sales, Sony Digital Cinema, Sony Europe, Pasch revealed that the region has just over 2,500 SXRD screens now.

Looking at the “remaining addressable market” beyond the replacement of first-generation and older systems (which has, in fact, already begun), Pasch believes it’s actually advantageous that Europe is such a fragmented market. He can report “excellent business” in Italy, where “conversion is finally gaining momentum,” and then shares his concern about Spain. “If they don’t move, we will see a really unfortunate number of cinemas closing. There is still a lot going on across Eastern Europe, and Turkey is a huge market. We have just begun shipping to and installing at [Turkey’s] CINEMApink. I don’t think there is any other cinema chain, at least in Europe, which can keep up with what they are accomplishing.”

Further speaking to Europe, “Sony is shipping the SRX-R510, which is the smaller twin brother to our very successful R515 projector and has four instead of six individually replaceable lamps.” Explicitly designed for the smaller cinema screen, this product responds to “customers telling us that 4K is by no means for large screens only. There are a lot of art-house cinemas, for instance, that are absolutely keen on providing the absolute best possible picture quality. They want a small, low cost-of-ownership and cost-of-operation projector.” Also responding to both concerns, Sony Europe continues to find success with its TMS Lite, which brings “efficient management to match size of operations. And scalability means spending less money.” Pasch invites exhibitors to check out Sony’s offer. “TMS Lite works with all the leading servers and all other projectors as well.”

Adding a more personal note about current technology topics, Pasch was surprised by a statement during Monday morning’s International Day presentation. “Texas Instruments was saying, ‘Yes, rumors are true, we are working on 8K because we want the cinema experience to be ahead of the home where 4K has become the standard.’ To hear that from the same people who—for years—had said 2K is sufficient, I found the announcement to be stirring and somewhat amusing,” he opines. “However, this topic and that of laser illumination, which has been boiling up big-time, is bringing us a lot of interested customers. They are telling us, ‘This is still all too much of prototype technology for us. We just upgraded everything…’” In addition to offering tried-and-true 4K imagery, Sony is working “at high speeds” on laser illumination, Pasch confirms. “We are taking more of a conservative approach, however. It may sound very arrogant, but it is true that Sony is one of the world leaders when it comes to laser diodes. Just think that our CD, DVD and, of course, Blu-ray players are top sellers and were in major part developed by our engineering departments.” Given this “substantial know-how, we decided that, rather than confounding our customers, who just invested into our technology, with various new prototypes, we are taking the more realistic approach that it will take some time to develop…a laser product that makes sense from a technological and economic standpoint.”

On the subject of another decision that exhibitors are facing and need to make a sound one (pun intended), Pasch responded with equal reassurance. “Our d-cinema systems are going to be integrated with immersive audio, of course. Ultimately, everything that enhances the cinema experience we are all in favor of.” Nonetheless, he assures, Sony will not be throwing another wrench into the developing gear. “You mean SSDS 2—The Sequel? No, no,” he chuckles. “The move into immersive audio is ultimately to be made by the studios. Again, it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Can the different systems play it back to SMPTE DCPs? It remains all about interoperability. From a studio standpoint, the development is really about realizing the dream of a single inventory, of shipping one DCP to all the cinemas.” (A.F.)

“It’s a new coating technology, very different to what we’ve had before, a leap forward,” declared Richard Mitchell, head of global marketing at Harkness Screens, about the company’s Clarus XC 170 screen for polarized 3D projection.

The Clarus XC product family uses fourth generation “d-smooth coating technology” for “silver” screens that displays “properties more commonly seen in ‘white’ screens [such as] significantly improved light distribution.” Harkness further promises, “Visible hot-spotting is reduced and uniformity is greatly increased, making compliance with 2D industry standards more easily achievable.”

At the Colosseum, the Sony Pictures presentation utilized Clarus, Mitchell pointed out. “The surface has a much smoother feel to it,” he says, providing a hands-on example of the “massive” and quite discernible improvement that is spray-painted-on during the manufacturing process. “The screen has become much more even, creating significantly improved light distribution compared to traditional 3D silver screens. The contrast has increased along with the actual clarity of the image. You see a lot more detail on the screen and the 3D depth of the picture is actually much deeper.”

If that were not enough, “one of the best things about Clarus is the resulting much wider viewing angle.” With over 200 Clarus XC 170 surfaces already mounted across Europe, Mitchell mentions Harkness’ consumer focus groups in the U.K. with the new technology versus the old. “The results have been very pleasing so far.”

Learning and leveraging knowledge are equally important during CinemaCon and other industry gatherings. In addition to NATO-sponsored seminars, which could use some revamping of the tried-and-tired formula, manufacturers took the lead and offered educational events as well. The Harkness Academy, for instance, offered four standalone seminars, covering how Harkness apps can assist in “managing your screen portfolio” (downloaded more than 2,500 times) and how to “optimize your screen through curvature and tilting along with screen choice,” to name but half of the topics. “We’ve had great success with our series of web seminars,” Mitchell said, confirming the genesis of what will likely become an ongoing offering, including at June’s CineEurope. “Since we started running these events back in 2012, their popularity has grown and they continue to receive praise and critical acclaim from our customers, industry partners and indeed the media.” (A.F.)

Setting a new standard for the way in which movies are delivered digitally to movie theatres—replacing the physical shipping of hard drives with a “specially created network comprised of next-generation satellite and terrestrial distribution technologies”—has indeed been the foremost goal of DCDC, the Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition (for more information, see page 94 in our April edition).

Founded last October by the top circuits in North America—Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Theatres and Cinemark Theatres—in partnership with Universal Pictures and Warner Bros., DCDC provided proof-positive at CinemaCon how far “the World of Content Delivery” has grown in a mere six months. Seventy features were brought to 1,292 sites covering 17,000 screens (13,000 via satellite). During the same period, The Walt Disney Company, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Lionsgate all signed on as content-provider customers of DCDC.

DCDC chief executive officer Randy Blotky confirmed that the second-tranche rollout is well underway and would be accelerated by the acquisition of the Deluxe/EchoStar satellite network, adding nearly 1,000 theatre sites to its footprint. Further expansion is virtually guaranteed (and physically too) with the NATO-negotiated inclusion of some 600 members in the trade association’s Cinema Buying Group (CBG). Opening up this “cost-efficient” network to small- and medium-sized independent U.S. exhibitors is not only politically advisable, but also a good business decision in view of potentially incorporating more than 7,000 additional screens.

Expertly (and entertainingly) moderated by Brian McKay, executive VP of technical operations at Warner Bros., panel guests and their feedback reflected the wide-ranging advantages of this front-to-back digital “smart pipe,” as the DCDC set-up has come to be known. Tim Warner, chief executive officer of co-founder Cinemark, and Ron Krueger III, the chief operating officer of Southern Theatres, who oversaw his chain joining as premier exhibition customers alongside National Amusements, described the benefits to theatres—both for a globally operating chain as well as for an entire region by “consolidating the dishes on our roofs.” Warner Bros. senior VP Kelly O’Connor envisioned how the studio’s exhibitor and marketing services will benefit through more efficient trailering, customized materials and campaigns, especially once lobbies have been digitized as well. Noah Bergman, VP, content services, for Universal Pictures, addressed the previously mentioned single-source solution from departure to ingestion, highlighting “tracking and managing tools,” as well as “real-time access” to play-out. Discussing the BBC’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who,” Fred Medina, executive VP and managing director, Latin America, for BBC Worldwide, admitted that the highly successful in-theatre component was an afterthought. He noted that it would not have been possible to quickly add 1,500 cinemas in 49 countries without the backbone of a digital delivery network. Not surprisingly, all attendees agreed that for DCDC to live up to its full potential, delivery has and will continue to go beyond feature films to include promotional, preshow, alternative forms of entertainment and live content distribution into theatres. (A.F.)

And now on to immersive sound: While Barco showcased its Auro 11.1 sound system at its impressive “CinemaBarco” demos at the Cinemark Century 16, Dolby temporarily installed its Atmos immersive audio system in CinemaCon’s main screening venue, the Colosseum, where it was part of the presentations by Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., and the Disney screening of Million Dollar Arm (in which Oscar winner A.R. Rahman’s Bollywood-style score swirled and popped). None other than Clint Eastwood gave a shout-out to the audio during the Warner preview, joking, “This is the first time I’ve been able to hear a film.”

Dolby also hosted potent demos in the Milano Ballroom, making a strong case that you were missing a significant part of the impact of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (the Oscar winner for sound editing and mixing) if you weren’t hearing its outer-space aural design in Dolby Atmos. And a clip from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty demonstrated director Ben Stiller’s resourceful use of Dolby Atmos’ array of channels to make the David Bowie classic “Major Tom” a memorable part of a key turning point in that fantasy-comedy.

As Barco and Dolby duke it out, one sound company is “trying to help unify the format war,” in the words of John Kellogg, senior director, corporate strategy and development, at DTS. Their solution is a file format called MDA (Multi Dimensional Audio).

“For many years, we’ve taken x number of sounds and mixed them together in channels,” Kellogg explains. “The difference with object-based audio and MDA is that we take all the audio objects and sounds and mix them together, but then we deliver those individual audio objects and sounds with metadata in a package—that’s the MDA file. The metadata describes three things: When does the sound play the audio object, how loud is it, and where is it in an XYZ coordinate?

“We began developing this three-and-a-half years ago, starting with SRS Labs, which was acquired by DTS. We thought object-based audio had lots and lots of interesting applications in all audio ecosystems including cinema. About a year-and-a-half ago, I started getting a lot of outreach from studio people, from NATO, from DCI, because of the potential format war between Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D, two very fixed speaker systems saying this is the only way. Exhibitors were saying what we really need is an interoperable, object-based immersive cinema format that can work with everything. So they approached us and said we hear you’ve got something. And we said yeah, we do, and this is how it can work. From that, this group kind of spontaneously formed—we call it loosely the MDA Cinema Proponents Group. It’s worked its way up to 11, 12 companies, including three studios who come from the DCI perspective.”

Kellogg declares, “MDA is agnostic to the number of speakers or where they are… [With MDA,] speakers are kind of like pixels—the more you have, the better the representation. But they’re not just channels. For cinema, what that means is we can take an MDA-mixed show, make the file into a DCP [Digital Cinema Package], and take it into any theatre, and all we need to know is how many speakers are in the room and where they are. It might be 50, it might be 7.1, it might be 5.1. The same MDA file with the immersive mix will map correctly with preservation of artistic intent.”

Kellogg urges, “This is good for the studios—they want one giant mix and to make one DCP and ship it anywhere. And exhibitors say: This is cool. I get one DCP and I can load it into my room with the big immersive system and my 5.1 rooms and I can play the film correctly in all of them.”

Calling MDA “affordable, scalable and flexible,” Kellogg says, “it is our belief that this should be a universal open format, like PCM channels are now, that everybody can use…. We’re basically gifting this to the industry. We’re not providing it royalty-free—we have some patents—but we think this is just like a new kind of PCM, a new tool and format everybody can use.”

In a final cautionary note about the prospects of a format war, Kellogg warns, “We better make this work for everybody. Otherwise, exhibitors will go buy comfy seats or serve cocktails.” (K.L.)

Returning once again to the theme of immersion, Philips, the major lighting company, unveiled at CinemaCon its own variation on the multi-screen experience that Barco showcased at the Cinemark Century. In this case, those extra “screens” are left and right wall panels with low-resolution but high-impact LED lighting fixtures, augmented by ceiling lighting and back lighting. Philips calls their innovation “LightVibes®,” and envisions many applications for its “immersive lighting” concept: preshow advertising, “second screen” interactivity, alternative events such as concerts, opera, ballet and live sports, in-theatre conferences and seminars, and even the feature film itself.

Ronald Maandonks, Philips’ venture manager for immersive cinema lighting, calls lighting “the next logical step” for theatres looking to differentiate themselves. In a private demo at CinemaCon, he showed an array of possibilities: a theatre circuit’s logo as a lighting design element on the side walls; popcorn and soda images to promote preshow concession sales; results of onscreen audience polls lighting up the auditorium; even Lego graphics on the walls to get young viewers psyched up for the Lego movie they’re about to watch. Philips is also experimenting with lighting enhancements for key moments in feature films, such as explosions.

Alternative events will be an ideal match for LightVibes, in Philips’ view, from a subdued lighting ambiance for opera and ballet to a bolder lightshow effect for rock concerts. “With lighting, you really are immersed in the concert and feel part of that live concert ambiance,” says Niels Leibbrandt, senior product manager for cinema lighting.

Philips oversaw a pilot installation of LightVibes at a cinema in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, creating a lightshow for concert broadcasts starring the rock band Muse. The company reports that 81% of viewers at a screening said LightVibes had significantly improved their in-cinema concert experience, and 65% of those interested in cinema concerts stated they would prefer a venue with LightVibes. On average, those polled said they would be six times more likely to attend a concert in a cinema with LightVibes available than one without.

LightVibes software is designed either to analyze the content in real time or to use pre-designed programs. The LED panels use non-reflective black fabric which does not interfere with audio quality and which cannot be seen when the lights are off. “Philips has a long history in lighting, audio and video, all of which are combined in this new proposition,” Maandonks says. (K.L.)

FJI will continue our exclusive reporting about Cinema Entertainment Centers next month with Cineplex XScape, and there was plenty of evidence throughout CinemaCon as well about expanded offerings to entertain moviegoers. Paradigm Design and TK Architects International offered ideas for multiple entertainment options under one roof—unfortunately, we did not find the time to check with JKR Partners, Mesbur+Smith and ERA Architects—while several vendors set up sample coin and redemption games for more traditional lobby-style arcades. And specialty provider Creative Works was on hand to highlight their services and the latest in attractions and interactive game design that is available to entertainment exhibitors.

Aiming for “The Wow Effect,” to borrow the company’s web name, “Atomic Rush” is one of the attractions that Jeffrey Benson of Cinergy Cinemas & Entertainment already described to our readers in our January edition. “You come out of there sweating your butt off because you are just running all over the place,” he told us about the installation at his Midland, Texas, location. “It’s really a lot of fun and a workout.” Kimberly Schilling, Creative Works’ VP of operations, confirmed that they also worked with UltraStar Cinemas on the Multi-tainment available at Ak-Chin Circle, which we featured in the April issue.

Quickly becoming the provider of choice for cinemas, Brunswick Bowling made its CinemaCon debut with a booth and by taking exhibitors and other guests on a tour of the brand-new Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas. Located at the equally new Linq across the street from Caesars, it is amazing to see what can’t be done to a formerly uninviting driveway and alley! Following the original Williamsburg recipe that Rolling Stone deemed “one of the most incredible places on Earth” and the first branch at the O2 arena in London, Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas offers more than awesome bowling, delicious cheese fries and giant video walls. On three levels spanning nearly 80,000 square feet (7,432 sq. m), the venue features a dedicated space for live concerts with room for 2,000 guests. In addition to 32 lanes of high-tech bowling, five well-stocked bars, comfortable and lounges and private terraces serve food by Blue Ribbon Restaurants and are designed to look like a New York City warehouse replete with Coney Island sideshow posters. Brooklyn Bowl is a bit of an entertainment center unto itself, concurred general manager Andrew Economon. Underlining that notion, guests move inside from under a classic movie theatre marquee. (A.F.)

There has been plenty of movement at CJ 4DPlex since we first introduced immersive technologies and enhanced sensory experiences synchronized to the action and activity on the screen in our October 2013 edition. In fact, last year alone, 4DX brought over 20 different motion, smell and tactile effects to 47 auditoriums in 14 additional countries. Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Guatemala, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Poland, Taiwan, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela brought the total number to 91 theatres with 14,000 seats in 23 countries since the system debuted with James Cameron’s Avatar in 2010.

During CinemaCon, the big news was all about the very first U.S. location at Regal Cinemas L.A. LIVE Stadium 14 ( “Los Angeles was the natural choice,” Byung Hwan Choi, chief executive officer of CJ 4DPlex said at CinemaCon during the signing with “strategic partner” AEG. “We wanted to bring this experience to where all the movie magic happens.” Meanwhile, on the tradeshow floor, making sure that this magic just keeps on getting better, the mini 4DPlex theatre (with maximum impact) showcased the latest advancements that software designers and hardware engineers have implemented. Including upgraded, “more realistic, natural chair movement” and an enhanced “water effect system that simulates rain from above,” theatre managers still won’t have to hand out umbrellas. Thankfully, “the ability to switch the water on or off” was included as part of the upgrade, as were “LED lights on the footrest for increased safety.” (On that note, let’s thank all aisle and emergency lighting manufacturers for keeping our guests safe without exit markers and lights interfering with that perfect picture on the screen.)

“4DX is part of South Korea’s CJ Group,” explains Angela Killoren, chief marketing officer of CJ E&M America. “Our entertainment holdings include exhibition, film production and distribution. So we are an integral part of the film business in Asia already and really value the content. When we developed 4DX, it was along the lines of our CJ theatre group developing different kinds of experiences that range from food-related to screen sizes and certainly include immersive environments that would really ‘get’ you.” (Read more about CJ’s “Cultureplex” concept elsewhere in this issue.) “Among those offerings,” Killoren continues, “4DX generates truly our biggest ‘Wow.’ We saw that success and thought this all-encompassing experience—motion, wind, fog, lighting and scents—would be really great to take elsewhere. And the response has been amazing indeed.”

4DX has numbers to back up its claim, headed up by Frozen with a total attendance of 550,000 generating occupancy rates 15% to 30% higher than 2D and 3D showings in the countries in which 4DX was available for the film (Brazil, Columbia, Guatemala, Peru and Russia). In Korea, 4DX showings of Frozen had 61% occupancy, compared to 44% percent for 2D and 41% for 3D. The company reports that the other top-performing 4DX movies in 2013 were among the most popular films in the world as well, ranging from Gravity and Iron Man 3 (531,000 and 390,000 admissions, respectively) to Fast and Furious 6, Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Despicable Me 2.

Apart from the increasing number of films available with synchronized 4DX code, additional credit for that growth goes to the business model. “Going into these different territories, we are co-investors,” Killoren confirms. “We are not licensors, we are not technology sales people that sell you some chairs and then leave, but we actually invest into the theatre with you.” (A.F.)