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Hot Button Discussion
Laser Projection Update
By Michael Goldman
Among the key issues rising in the wake of the ongoing 3D feature film exhibition breakout is the quest for brighter theatrical projection systems. The cinematic brightness issue, for decades, has revolved around delicate and expensive xenon arc-style projector lamps. However, the 3D revolution has brought other options previously considered not yet mature into the equation, particularly various types of Solid State illumination technologies. LED applications are spreading across society generally, of course, but specifically for theatrical exhibition, laser projection technology has been making significant noise in the past two years.
Late last year, following on the heels of a 2010 licensing deal with Laser Light Engines, Inc. (LLE) to develop high-brightness laser light systems, IMAX signed a major deal with Kodak to license the laser projection technology that the company had been demonstrating to the industry over the course of the previous year. Now, industry pundits are predicting we will be seeing laser systems up-and-running in major theatrical venues around the world within the next year or so. Virtually every major digital projector manufacturer is investigating the technology to one degree or another these days, with well-received demos from major manufacturers like Barco and NEC happening in recent months. Indeed, the latest developments in the world of laser projection are slated to be part of the discussion at the 2012 Technology Summit on Cinema at the NAB Show in April, and other announcements from major players were pending at presstime.
All this is part of an exciting trend in the illumination world generally, according to Bill Beck, a co-founder of LLE and a longtime evangelist for the merits of laser technology as it relates to digital cinema. "What is happening with lighting generally around the world? We are going from incandescent to fluorescent or LED—even average consumers know that with the changes to their home light bulbs," he suggests. "So there is a trend in applications of Solid State illumination globally, and lasers are part of that."
More specifically, what some people call "laser cinema" is now moving out of the laboratory, through the mainstream conversation, and onto the drawing board for IMAX and others. There are many reasons for this, but the largest one, according to Beck, is the fact that the 3D trend has made it clear that exhibitors need brighter and more cost-effective light sources for their projectors to show off high-end 3D properly. That paradigm shift converges nicely with the fact that manufacturers have recently made enormous strides to mitigate or eliminate the historic drawbacks that have, until now, limited laser projection's advance.
Principal among those drawbacks is the issue of laser speckle. Even defining it is hard—Beck jokes that you know it when you see it. But, basically, he says speckle comes when a raw laser is used as a light source for a digital projector, and shows up on screens as "a shimmery, sparkly overlay on the whole picture that is completely unacceptable. This is a feature of all (raw) laser light sources, and until very recently, was thought to be impossible to eliminate."
However, in 2010, Kodak demonstrated low speckle RGB laser light sources that made enough of an impression on projector manufacturers, 3D companies, and studios that general development of laser projection technology has sped up since then. The problem isn't fully solved in the sense that despeckling technology has proved most effective on white screens, as opposed to silver screens, but it has been effective enough to start convincing the industry that laser's advantages are worth pursuing at long last.
Those advantages include the fact that "you eliminate the lamp change," Beck says. "Solid state lasers have an incredibly long lifetime. They will consume less power. You have a brighter image, which is important for 3D, and brightness is scalable—lasers can supply more lumens without requiring more projectors in a large venue."
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Despite technical strides and these advantages, however, the introduction of laser projection systems into the digital cinema equation is only now getting off the ground because their very existence as an option poses major business challenges for digital cinema exhibitors who have just gone through revolutionary change and major business upheavals in a delicate economy. Should exhibitors upgrade and evolve their digital projection infrastructures with upcoming first-generation, integrated laser projection designs? Should they retrofit their existing infrastructures with off-board laser engines, so to speak? Or should they stand pat? After all, xenon lamps remain dominant for the time being, and manufacturers are continuing to explore brighter and more efficient lamps.
Beck suggests there is "a battle raging" in the industry on which of these approaches makes the best business sense. He personally believes retrofitting makes good sense for exhibitors right now, since they are still riding out the extensive expenditures on traditional digital projection systems they have made in the past few years, and because off-boarding the laser engine is not only possible, but fairly easy to accomplish, thanks to the wonders of fiber-optic technology. Laser engines can be coupled to existing projectors via optical fiber and be located in pedestals, booth racks, or server closets, he suggests. This method will potentially allow many more exhibitors to join the laser parade now without tossing out recent investments, and also allows them to consider the possibility of smaller projectors and more efficient use of space in the future.
"As with sound and automation, light can be rackmounted in a server closet and be delivered to an existing projector, or in the future, to a smaller universal projector head," he explains. "There is no optical limit to how much laser power can be coupled to the projector chips. The only limit will be related to the cooling of existing projectors, and then, designing projectors in the future that can handle a much brighter light source. So you can imagine a projector head that is the size of two shoeboxes, which can put out 100,000 lumens. That has implications for how you show movies. It isn't quite there yet, but from an engineering standpoint, it will surely be feasible. The link between the laser, which generates the light, and the universal projection head is simply an optical fiber cable. People think of fiber for data transmission, but is it radical to say we can pump visible light through optical fiber, as well? Not at all—we do it every day in the lab. That opens us to the idea of light farms—one projector doing different brightness each day, and 2D one day and 3D the next. It would give digital projectors of the future greater flexibility."
That's jumping ahead a bit, but in the meantime, since exhibitors have gone through all the time, pain, and expense of converting from film exhibition, they might understandably not want to choose the current moment to radically convert yet again along the lines of what he has described as possible. Therefore, he offers the rackmounting retrofit solution—light sources fiberlinked to just about any modern digital cinema projector, while removing only the lamphouse from the existing projector.
"This is not as elegant a solution as the integrated laser projector solution, but for right now, that is not the right comparison," he suggests. "The right comparison is what is better for the exhibitor? A two-year-old digital projector that he can reduce his cost of ownership for? Or waiting three or four years for a purpose-built projector to come online and then throw away the projector he bought a few years earlier? I feel that fiber-optics is an excellent way to introduce laser light into the projector, whether a few feet or a hundred feet away."
Other concerns are also in various stages of being addressed—regulatory issues and acceptable standards, in particular. On the regulatory side, there is a speed bump to surmount due to the fact that the light is, as generated, "laser" light. However, in digital projection applications, light is processed so that it no longer meets the official definition of "laser light," which is tightly regulated due to the fact that its brightness directly out of the laser can pose harm to those viewing it the wrong way for too long or too close. Although laser projection is therefore not technically the same thing as "laser light," the Federal government still considers it to be "high power" laser exhibition. As such, the industry is working with the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to work out proper definitions for the technology, and proper regulations in the context of laser projection being different than the more harmful forms of laser light shows that have historically required regulation.
On the standards' side, Beck says the industry is confident that laser projectors are already capable of meeting DCI specifications and are at, or able to exceed in some cases, SMPTE standards for things like contrast ratio and dynamic range. However, improving their performance with silver screens and addressing inherent qualities of laser projection that have no relationship to current SMPTE standards, particularly speckle, needs to happen. So coming up with what Beck calls an acceptable, consistent speckle contrast ratio level is among the standardization issues to grapple with.
Nearly every major projector manufacturer and other technology companies have formed an industry association called the Laser Illuminated Projector Association (LIPA) to get the ball rolling on addressing such regulatory issues and standards. Beck expects that once laser-specific issues are examined more in-depth by LIPA, SMPTE and others in the industry will be able to roll such standards into existing specifications over the course of time.
"LIPA is starting the process of developing common terminology, common regulatory regimes, measurement processes, and other things that would ultimately migrate or evolve into SMPTE standards," he explains. "Finding the best way to do speckle measurement is one of the things we are working on, and there are several others. But the point is, with all these initiatives under way, I believe that 2012 will be the year that we move laser projection from being a really nice demo to, no, let's get out the meters and check everything out—test patterns, different kinds of screens, all those things. Then, I think that by 2013, you will see lasers implemented into cinemas and other large-venue applications. The question is, will they tiptoe into it at the start as showcase installations? Or will there be a full-tilt rollout? But, either way, I'm very sure it will happen."
One other factor needed to make it happen, he suggests, is additional investment. Beck feels the industry desperately needs to commit more capital to product development and commercialization. He is fond of pointing out that since the beginning of digital cinema more than 15 years ago, the vast majority of investment and R&D money has gone into development and commercialization of imaging chips and processing technology.
"About a billion dollars was probably invested in the development of digital imaging chips, both DLP® and LCOS," he says. "And yet, the amount of investment into new Solid State light sources has been, well, let's just say far less than that. Limited investment in commercialization and scale-up is really the only remaining impediment to wider-scale adoption over the next few years. Xenon technology is great, but it's been taken as far as it can go, in my opinion, and bigger Xenon lamps cannot solve the 3D brightness problem. In fact, major manufacturers of Xenon arc lamps are also investigating lasers. Engineers will point out that LEDs are possibly more efficient than lasers from the point-of-view of lumens per electrical watts, and that is true. But LED's have the same limitation that lamps have—there is still a limit on how much light you can get on the imaging chips. So, because they can increase 3D brightness, improve image quality, and save exhibitors money, I really believe that lasers are the future for digital cinema light sources, but we do need a more involved investment community to make it happen."
A happy moment for Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Tom Sherak at the recent Sci-Tech Awards banquet was his declaration from the podium of completion of the followup Sci-Tech Council report to its landmark study in 2007 of film preservation and archiving in the digital era—a publication called The Digital Dilemma. That original study analyzed the question of how best to preserve and protect digital motion picture assets and other digital data produced by Hollywood studios and others, and it spurred numerous initiatives and research into the world of digital archiving and data management/preservation in recent years. The new report, co-authored by Milt Shefter, a Sci-Tech Council member, and Andy Maltz, Academy Director of the Sci-Tech Council, adds to the discussion with a focus on the challenges faced by independent filmmakers, documentary filmmakers, and those operating audio-visual archives of various types. It's a fascinating analysis, and you can download it here. In addition, for a definitive discussion of the report and its contextual importance, read a column by John Bailey, ASC, at the American Cinematographer website here.
Meanwhile, also at the Sci-Tech Awards' banquet, legendary visual effects' guru/filmmaker Douglas Trumbull was honored by the Academy with the prestigious Gordon E. Sawyer Award. In his acceptance speech, Trumbull didn't spend much time discussing the specifics of the update to his original Showscan large-format, high-frame-rate system—Showscan Digital. But he did repeat the call he made at SMPTE and NAB gatherings in the past year to fundamentally "upgrade" the cinematic experience in the era of ultra-high-end home viewing and mobile devices, even declaring that he is actively working at "trying to figure out how to make a movie that (the audience is) in, rather than looking at." Trumbull's return to the forefront of digital cinema discussion has been getting increasingly enthusiastic in recent months. In celebrating Trumbull's recent honor, Sean Axmaker of the Parallax View cinema website recently published an expanded, highly detailed version of a fascinating interview he did with Trumbull a few years ago, in which Trumbull discussed his career from 2001: A Space Odyssey through Brainstorm and onward, ending with a hint of what he is preparing to unveil today—what he then called "immersive media" that could offer viewers "profound personal experiences." Creative Cow magazine also recently published an in-depth conversation with Trumbull about the technological breakthroughs of his 45-year-plus career.
An interesting article on the Studio Daily site surveys representatives of Adobe, Apple, and Avid about the trends they expect to see in 2012 and beyond in light of the growing infiltration of the Thunderbolt interface, Solid State storage (SSD), mobile editing generally, and other maturing trends. Representatives from all three manufacturers suggested that Thunderbolt and SSD both not only have the potential to revolutionize the mobility, speed, and logistics of editing remotely—they have already done so, with more to come. A key point: the Thunderbolt interface allows large storage devices to connect at breakneck speed with laptops, allowing them to function like traditional workstations when necessary, while at the same time, SSD technology permits those same devices to work light, and with great flexibility, at similar breakneck speeds in an easy to manage way. Several other growing storage trends are examined in the article.
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