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What's Next for Digital Cinema? 

By Michael Goldman 


In an era where manufacturers of digital cinema-related technologies are routinely pushing an onslaught of tools and workflow techniques to advance what is theoretically possible in categories like stereoscopic imagery, higher frame rates, laser projection, content security, image capture, and so many others, the question to ask is what will eventually be feasible, rather than what will be possible. Keeping that question in mind, the follow-up might be, what is the next big thing for digital cinema, or at least, what should be the next big thing?


A new, more modern, and more strategic business model for digital cinema technology companies might be the most important general answer to that question. That's the point promoted by industry consultant Michael Karagosian, president of MKPE Consulting and a longtime analyst of the digital cinema industry. Karagosian suggests that a rapid downturn in equipment sales is looming, following several boom years. Typically, he suggests, such downturns are periods where new features are introduced to stimulate sales. But the challenge when introducing new features is the ability of the exhibitor to somehow monetize them.


"A big concern in the ongoing standards efforts for digital cinema is that [the technology community] is so technically driven that we don't always understand the business enablers that make or break new features," Karagosian explains. "This is why I want the industry to have a dialogue on the workflow side, as it is the area where improvements will generate real savings. Billions have been spent converting cinemas around the world to digital projection, but the primary economic benefit that both exhibitors and distributors have realized is the ticket bump for 3D movies. Distributors realize a savings with digital distribution over film. Those savings are spent today in the form of virtual print fee subsidies, but they will be realized by the end of this decade. For exhibitors, the promise of moving to a digital infrastructure is the ability to centrally manage booking and reconciliation down to the screen, but that hasn't been realized yet either, and it isn't an area that will just 'fix itself.' Looking back, the DCP concept was successful because we brought business people into early discussions to be sure we were addressing their needs. We need to take a similar step with workflow management."


"A second phenomena we are seeing is the inability of the industry to monetize new technologies. Innovation continues, but businesses are not going to dish out money for new features until they see how it can actually do something for them, by either cutting costs or bringing in new revenue. No one is going to add new features just because they are cool. This is another pointer back to workflow--there is more to squeeze out of what they've got before [manufacturers can try to] sell them something new."


One important area in which workflow systems and procedures appear ripe for innovation is in security management. "In digital cinema, we introduced something that never existed in film--the managing of keys for authorizing pieces of equipment to play a movie," Karagosian explains. "Film distribution does not have an analogous process. Interoperable workflow issues do not simply fix themselves, and for the first time in the short history of digital cinema, there are processes that are finally gaining wide acceptance for security key management. This work has yet to be standardized, however."


Radical upgrade is out of the question. Almost 100,000 digital screens are already in operation across the world and the final phase of converting cinemas to digital is now under way, Karagosian emphasizes. Therefore, any further changes in terms of upgrading what is all still relatively new, on a difficult economic landscape, will be "incredibly slow." This all leads back to his major point--a slowdown in product sales is coming, and the industry needs to get ready. In order to prepare, Karagosian advises that it is a good idea to go back and examine the long, winding, and unique history of the original digital cinema rollout. The clues as to what will be substantially different this time, and why, lie within that story, he suggests.


"It's important to study [technology] adoption patterns," Karagosian says. "Digital cinema was originally a replacement technology. The studios saw huge money to be saved by distributing digitally and wanted exhibitors to install it. However, those who would save money weren't the ones being required to spend it, so studios helped exhibitors pay for the conversion by means of the virtual print fee subsidy model. Replacement technologies don't instill rapid adoption, so subsidies are only part of the story behind the rapid adoption we've seen. The introduction of digital 3D in 2005 brought an 'added value' element to digital cinema. Important filmmakers such as [James Cameron and Peter Jackson] were proponents for 3D, ensuring there would be content--a critical piece. The big driver, however, was that audiences would pay more for 3D. That was the business factor--it could be monetized. The box-office success of Avatar closed the deal. Exhibitors bought digital 3D projection systems for Avatar, the bet paid off, the virtual print fee kicked in to complete the conversion process, and equipment sales started taking off."


Higher frame rates are the most recent example, Karagosian states. It is not clear that high-profile HFR efforts had a big impact on box office in the past year, and the equipment challenges in making them happen were significant. While multiple manufacturers claimed their equipment would support HFR, Karagosian claims a lot of last-minute upgrades were required, not to mention the workflow issues. Earlier this year, he wrote about this challenge in an article in his industry newsletter, mkpeReport.


"It was relatively easy to roll out 3D as the 48 frame/sec projection rate needed to enable the format was already specified in the DCI specification," he wrote in the article. "Even though DCI had not envisioned 3D, and did not include it in its specification, it was possible to add on 3D capability with little more than software changes to the projection equipment." But, he continued, "not so with HFR. HFR capability does not fit within the parameters of the DCI specification. Besides requiring a higher frame rate than DCI, it requires a higher compression bit rate than DCI."


Karagosian praises filmmakers such as Jackson and Cameron for their willingness to experiment and trail-blaze HFR on the big screen, but also predicts, at the end of the day, their decisions with studio partners about HFR for future projects, and which frame rate, in particular, will likely be guided by what is the most practical way to get big box-office for the venture, rather than by adhering strictly to a visceral commitment to any one particular frame rate.


Karagosian suggests that these kinds of inter-connected business issues are why the industry will have to re-examine its present direction; not necessarily to introduce new capabilities, but rather, to maximize the value of current investments. At the same time, creative leaders must continue to determine what innovations, if any, are needed to better tell stories.


"The idea that DCI will upgrade its spec to embrace new cinema formats doesn't sit well with me," Karagosian states. "The DCI spec is the output of key distributors working together to enable a new way of doing business. It is important because it creates a baseline technology for everyone. The baseline is important, particularly when conversion first began, because without it, banks didn't have the confidence to finance the equipment. Now that digital is the trend, the financing risks are much less, but the baseline is still useful. The industry can always add new capabilities on top of the DCI spec, without the need to modify it. It's the appropriate way to move forward, as new experiences in cinema will not be financed through studio subsidies, and will need to prove their commercial value."


All of which is why Karagosian brings the conversation back to workflow. "It takes more work than just enhancing the digital cinema concept of a composition with a more informative playlist," he says. "Work processes have to be improved, too."


None of this is to suggest that exciting innovations will not be forthcoming in a way that fits into current economic realities, however. For instance, 3D brightness levels "clearly need to improve," Karagosian points out, and he's impressed by the industry's work on laser projection systems. "But the cost of lasers is too high, and metamerism [the matching of object colors at different spectral wavelengths] is an issue. The drive to improve 3D light levels is clearly in place, and there is more than one way to innovate in that area."


Likewise, Karagosian emphasizes there is a "long trail of 3D content" on the way for companies to exploit across various platforms as home 3D viewing systems evolve. In that category, the key will be breakthroughs in auto stereoscopic monitors that no longer require 3D glasses for viewing. "You won't get wide adoption at home until that happens," he says.


Meantime, in all of these cases, the mere development of the technology will mean very little if there is not a financially feasible way to implement it on the horizon.


"To bring new technologies into cinemas, you really have to follow the dollar," Karagosian concludes. "Technology folks need to think about the how to monetize their ideas. Cool stuff doesn't mean much if it doesn't add to the bottom line. Without taking that factor into account, innovation can be a really tough nut."


News Briefs

Impactful Technologies To Come 

As the 2013 NAB Show approaches, speculation about what new broadcast products might make a splash is well under way. At least one industry pundit was recently speculating about what we might be talking about a year or two down the road. In a recent blog on the Broadcast Engineering site, writer Ned Soseman honed in on three particular concepts that have the potential to broadly impact broadcasters in the coming years. The first item on his list was Google Glass, and its recently ballyhooed method of permitting consumers to wear voice-controlled displays as eyeglasses or goggles, with many of the same capabilities as a smart phone. Soseman suggests the rise of Google Glass has heated up "a new technology concept known as wearable computing." His second pick is the introduction of hardware components made out of graphene, which is basically a carbon material with its atoms arranged in hexagonal honeycomb patterns that appears to have properties favorable for use in electronic components. He claims recent experiments have shown that graphene is the world's thinnest material that can be utilized for, potentially, all sorts of electrical devices, including long-lived batteries possibly. His third selection is the "spray-on antenna" from Chamtech Enterprises. Soseman says the product contains nano-particles that can be sprayed on many surfaces, including non-metallic surfaces, to turn those surfaces into wireless or wired (when connected) signal receptors.


Schubin at HPA


Longtime broadcast industry technology pundit Mark Schubin recently put together on his website a fascinating inside look at the 2013 Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA) Technology Retreat, which took place in late February in Indian Wells, CA. Schubin's piece contextualizes some of the industry trends, themes, and debates that shaped the conference. The retreat opened, he said, with a Year in Review that good-naturedly declared this year to be the "27th (or 78th) Annual Year of HDTV." He also noted that experts at the event discussed the fact that a large percentage of television programming consumed by Americans in the past year was viewed in standard definition, even though most of those households now own HDTVs. This was one of the "legacies of early television" discussed at the retreat, according to Schubin. "Do we still need the 0.999000...frame-rate-reduction factor of NTSC color in an age of Ultra-HD?" he wondered. Cinema display screen brightness, the resilience of film for archiving (and for production of dozens of major motion pictures still being produced in the medium right now), new and old image restoration techniques, image focus in post, and lots of other issues were also part of the event's zeitgeist. Schubin summarizes many of them and points readers to other important coverage of HPA 2013 across the web.


Digital Signage Rising 

While much of the discussion about the latest digital display technologies revolves around home displays and cinemas, one of the fastest growing applications today can be found in the world of digital signage. Display technology expert Ken Werner illustrated this point recently with a roundup on the HDTV Expert site looking at the recent Digital Signage Expo (DSE), which took place late February in Las Vegas. Werner points out that this year's DSE had more exhibitors than ever before, and loads of technological innovation. The show, he says, was chock full of demonstrations for how to use Gorilla Glass at large sizes to protect digital signs in high-traffic environments; how to network and distribute signals in new ways; how to use interactive signage in a way that consumers can relate to; how LED signs are growing as an alternative to conventional LCD signs and other ways to reduce power consumption; new applications for transparent and curved signs; and of course, the rise of 4K panels for different kinds of environments, among other things.