Good vibrations: Transducer technologies enable sound at your seat
In our September edition last year, Film Journal International presented the first industry-wide survey of 4D systems that offer seat motion and other tactile enhancements to the film experience. This time around, we invite you to sit down, lean back and feel the sounds as they vibrate to the beat of the action onscreen.
A variety of terms are being “buttkicked” around to describe this type of experience: “kinetic seating,” with “vibro” transducers and multi-channel “sound animation,” “acoustically vibrating” and providing moviegoers with a “full-sensory” experience. It all brings back memories of William Castle’s The Tingler and “Percepto."
While the technologies presented in this overview all use in-seat and/or in-back transducers, there are two general ways in which their vibrations respond to the movie. The Guitammer Company and TremorFX are tapping into the subwoofer channel of the soundtrack, without requiring any additional encoding. The seats and models using Acouve’s acoustic vibration system—Camatic, Cine-Sation and CGV’s VeatBox seating, for example—are activated by a special time code that is programmed to match activities and events unfolding in the film. It’s not exactly music to one’s ear, but(t) more fun for the cheeks.
Guitammer takes up on that very idea and has appropriately called its system “The ButtKicker." “It is like a silent subwoofer that allows you to feel the bass,” explains chief executive officer Mark Luden. “It is accurate, nuanced and, most importantly, does not stand apart from the rest of the movie experience. ButtKicker brand products are special because they are musically accurate, powerful, virtually indestructible and follow the soundtrack with absolute precision automatically.”
Since his September 2013 report to FJI, Luden has happily welcomed AMC Theatres onto the bouncing seat. “AMC clearly sees the value proposition,” he believes. “We are thrilled to be a part of AMC’s new Prime concept. We feel that the immersive experience offered in these theatres represents the future of cinema, and we could not have a better partner than AMC in making that future a reality. These new locations, with approximately 1,100 new seats, increase our total mainstream [non-specialty] U.S. movie theatre deployment to more than 2,500 seats in 14 auditoriums.”
In addition to six AMC Prime theatres already up and vibrating in four markets, Ryan Noonan, the chain’s director of corporate communications, confirms ongoing installations at AMC Empire 25 (New York City) and inclusion at AMC Village on the Parkway 9 (Addison/Dallas, Texas), currently under construction. According to AMC’s promo page, “AMC Prime is the movie experience that delivers the ‘wow’ of sight, sound and sense like you wouldn’t believe. Feel the action with super-comfy recliners that actually reverberate with every explosion and every laser blast. Live inside the sound with audio that submerges you in a world of sensation…”
While two Guitammer transducers in each of the power reclining chairs bring the sounds from the bottom up, Dolby Atmos assures that above and all around are perfectly covered too. With nothing short of JBL speakers installed for completing “a world-class, immersive audio experience.” As for the visual side, AMC Prime’s promo promises to “capture every moment in the finest detail with the unbelievably crisp and luminous picture.” AMC’s presentation team selected “a combination of dual Christie projectors and a specialized screen” for higher light gains, Noonan adds. “We are continuing to transform our theatres to deliver the best possible moviegoing experience to our guests. AMC Prime combines two of AMC’s core guest initiatives—more comfort, and premium sight and sound—to provide a unique blend of enhanced sensory technology and maximum comfort. Among all of our in-theatre experiences, AMC Prime consistently receives the highest guest satisfaction scores. Moviegoers are confirming that AMC Prime delivers an unmatched visual and audio experience.”
TremorFX technology is already being enjoyed by guests visiting Caribbean Cinemas and Russia’s Karo, says Seating Concepts’ marketing director, Mario Pereira. “Later this summer we will be debuting in the U.S. in Salt Lake City, Utah. We are also working with several other clients in North America and Europe. It is a unique experience for the moviegoer and a distinctive factor of differentiation for the cinema.” Seating Concepts is “very excited” about their partnership with TremorFX, he assures. “This is available in several chair model options and finishes.”
Theatre owners set their own prices and upcharges for the experience (“no extra fee is charged”) and they can take advantage of TremorFx’s modular design to replace chairs one-for-one (“minimal footprint…easy installation and minimal power requirements”). These are some of the system advantages that Seating Concepts has provided to FJI. Again, the “direct media interface” with “advanced algorithm” eliminates the need for special coding, making any movie—and alternative/event-cinema presentations—immediately immersive. “This technology allows the patron to enhance their moviegoing experience,” Pereira concludes, “by personalizing the sensation of the movie’s motion and sound.”
In South Korea, CGV has found several different ways to allow guests to customize their experiences. In line with this overview, we need to mention vibration and beats, both in and at your seats. CGV Cheongdam CineCity in Seoul, for instance, has two auditoriums where every one of their 108 seats is outfitted with hi-def “Studio”-type headphones in partnership with “Beats by Dr. Dre.” Although the film sound still comes from auditorium speaker arrays as well, it does not get any more immersive and individual than that. Also at Cheongdam, the 218-capacity VeatBox auditorium features individual subwoofers embedded into every single one of its red and faux-leopard accented fauteuils. This makes for “a fun and exciting seating experience,” CGV noted last December. All the while, “the sound-vibration seats allow for a more engaging movie experience where the audience physically feels the sound from the movie.” The brand name was derived from a combination of vibration and beat and the system is powered by fellow South Korean company, Acouve.
Success has been such that CGV currently vibrates no less than 7,945 VeatBox seats located in 53 screening rooms of 50 of their cinemas. And the technology will be expanded even further, confirms Boram Kim from CGV’s communications department. At 9,000 won, the ticket price for VeatBox is 1,000 won higher (about US$1.00). Whereas the original Cheongdam auditorium was outfitted with in-seat transducers in its entirety, the offer now includes a select number of rows only. “We want our audience to see and feel the film in multiple ways, and with VeatBox the sound definitely feels more vitalizing.”
In another partnership with Acouve, Australia’s Camatic has “protyped” a chair that offers “a sensation according to the thrills and excitement of the selected movie,” advises sales director Ian Bruton. “Camatic has adapted one of our existing cinema chairs… All of the smarts reside with Acouve and their system, which relays data signals to their product which is fitted internally to the Camatic chair.”
For the U.S. debut of Cine-Sation at the Ridge Cinema 19 in New Berlin, Wisconsin, Marcus Theatres “took the opportunity of installing all new seats in the entire auditorium, one hundred even,” notes Clint Wisialowski, assistant VP, sales, research and development. “We are currently working with VIP Seating to produce a retrofit solution that would be available for both our exclusive DreamLounger-branded recliner and for a more traditional theatre seat.”
On that note, for a U.S. audience the chair needs to be wider, alongside what he calls “a silly, minor piece in that our large-size drinks do not fit in the cupholders. Internationally, the seat might be working fine for them, but we offer some fantastic seats across our circuit and the Cine-Sation chairs have to be competitive. That was a learning curve and I do not think you will see any of that again in the next install. They even offered to swap the seats out for us.” Support has, in fact, been tremendous. “They have been there every weekend since we opened and even brought in technicians from their parent company in South Korea. They have been wonderful.”
The proprietary, patented Cine-Sation seating technology that “translates sound effects on the screen into a physical sensation using acoustics” is also based on Acouve’s transducer and cushion-spring combination. Moving iMage Technologies is the sole OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) of Cine-Sation, says Joe Delgado, MiT’s executive VP sales and marketing. “Our engineers have taken a great product and made it even better—more complete, robust, with automated monitoring. We will be handling all sales, marketing and distribution throughout the Americas, with all other territories to come once the rollout in the U.S. is established. Cine-Sation is trademarked and is the sole name of the enhanced technology worldwide.”
“Marcus Theatres is always looking out and forward for possible future options that will enhance the entertainment value for our patrons,” says Mark Collins, the circuit’s director of projection technology. He calls the collaboration with MiT “a great opportunity for us to move forward with a real-life test. Now we can find out what the true cost is going to be. How many movies will be available in this format? For us, it is truly a test whether this is viable to expand into other auditoriums and locations.”
So far, the supply of time-coded films has been steady. “While Godzilla was available, the auditorium was not yet ready,” Wisialowski notes. Cine-Sation kicked off instead with Edge of Tomorrow, followed by Transformers and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, at the time of our conversation. “Acouve composes the time code for a specific feature, which will always be quality-controlled by the studio. The actual encoding can be fairly quick and is done in a couple of days,” he has observed. “And the file that is generated and sent off to the theatres is very, very small. This is not just taking audio tracks—this creates actual effects and vibrations that are channeled through the transducers.” In fact, there are two different feeds coming off the effects-generator server to precisely match screen and seat actions. One transducer-spring combination is located in the seat pan and another one in the lower section of the backrest.
“Our guests feel it has the right strength; they indicate that it is effective and that the timing was good.” Wisialowski adds there was “not much negative vibe from guests on the surcharge” and “they seem to think it is worth it.” Nonetheless, the upcharge was suspended “in favor of creating more word of mouth to drive additional attendance… At this point, we are trying to gauge whether or not our guests like it, more than working out the economics of the business model.”
What do the experts think? “The effect is spot-on, the timing is very good,” Collins responds. “Because it is produced outside of the soundtrack, there is a lot of pressure to time it correctly. When the effects hit onscreen, it also has to hit the effect in the chair. While you are noticing the sensation at first, as you go through the film it becomes more and more part of the movie.”
Before committing to Cine-Sation, Wisialowski elaborates, the seats had been tested in-house. “We were obviously concerned about what we were going to provide to our guests. Mr. Collins here was kind enough to allow us to take out two seats from the Marcus Screening Room. So all of us had the opportunity to see several time-coded films that we brought in, as well as various trailer reels that Acouve had assembled. By the time we put Cine-Sation into the Ridge Cinema auditorium, we were pretty confident that it was not going to be looked at as detrimental to the moviegoing experience. In fact, I believe it to be very complementary. The success of the seat has been better than we anticipated it to be. At the end of the day, it will require that studios allow them to integrate the effects. The success of Cine-Sation will be built upon…convincing filmmakers and studios that this is an additional artistic means to draw attendance to their films.”
Wouldn’t you know, it’s still all about butts in seats.