Coming to a theater near you

Sept. 21, 2000
Whether the cinema of choice is a fancy multimillion dollar movie complex or one's own comfortable living room, people have been fascinated by cinematography for more than a century.

Dinosaur, Walt Disney Pictures' live-action/computer-animated visual effects spectacle, and the animated Tarzan, are among those movies that have been digitally projected. In the above clip, two lemurs watch as a baby dinosaur hatches from its egg.

Dinosaur's Iguanodons, Aladar and Neera, and their lemur companions settle into a new nesting ground.

A pair of bloodthirsty carnotaurs threaten other migrating dinosaurs.

The DMD's highly reflective surface uses the projector's light source by eliminating obstacles in its path and reflecting more light onto the screen. Depending on an image's content, DLP's light source reflects the image either through a lens and onto the screen or directly to a light absorber.

Texas Instruments' DLP Cinema projector has already been installed in 30 movie theaters in North America, Europe, and Japan.

In JVC's D-ILA projector, each image frame is broken into primary colors displayed on three D-ILAs then combined so that they reach the screen as a single image. Shown is an optical system for a single D-ILA device.

Silicon Light Machines' GLV device is made up of tiny pixels on the surface of a silicon chip. Each pixel is comprised of ribbonlike structures that move up and down.

Texas Instruments compared a poly-Si LCD projector to a DLP projector. Under the same projection conditions, the LCD image has a screen door effect while the DLP image is seamless. Gaps in the LCD projection are said to get bigger as the image size is increased.

I remember it well. Spreading a blanket across the living room floor and settling down with a big bowl of popcorn, eagerly waiting for my grandma to turn off the lights and switch on the old 8-mm film projector. Within seconds, there I was, jumping around and acting like a buffoon with my brother, each of us trying to get the camera's attention. For the next 30 min, I was a movie star, and all it took was a makeshift screen in the form of a white sheet tacked to the back wall and that projector. It still makes me smile.

Whether the cinema of choice is a fancy multimillion dollar movie complex or one's own comfortable living room, people have been fascinated by cinematography for more than a century. Yet, in a world where technology is growing by leaps and bounds, the science behind cinema has basically remained the same, save for the addition of sound and color in the 1930s. Still, when it comes to capturing images on film, 35 mm has been the industry standard since the 1900s. All that will change, however, in the next 10 to 20 years, according to motion-picture industry experts, as digital cinema gets underway.

Digital cinema is a system that delivers full-length motion pictures, advertisements, sporting events, and other cinema-quality programs to theaters using digital technology. With digital cinema, also called electronic cinema (e-cinema), "film" is digitally recorded, compressed, encrypted, and stored on disk drives and shipped or delivered to cinemas by satellites. Once theaters decrypt and decompress the data, it is displayed using digital projectors.

Hollywood is no stranger to computergenerated special effects. But, digital cinema takes things a step further by computerizing the filming, delivery, and projection of those movies.

Going digital has many benefits for all parties involved — from the directors, producers, and cinematographers to distributors, exhibitors, and moviegoers. Though film has proven itself for more than 100 years, there's no denying its susceptibility to wear and tear: scratches, smudges, dirt, splice marks, and other distortions can all lessen image quality. But unlike traditional film, digital "film," doesn't wear out, says Steve Morley, vice president of technology for QUALCOMM Incorporated, an image-compression technology provider that is developing a complete digital cinema delivery system.

"Compare compact disk recordings to LPs. Barring catastrophic damage, replays of compact disks offer identical quality as the first play," Morley explains. "Not so for vinyl LP recordings that, even with the best care, will be degraded by dust, scratches, static electricity, and just plain wear. The same effect applies when comparing digital cinema to film recordings."

In addition to delivering consistent quality time after time, a digital cinema system can cut production and distribution costs substantially. According to Screen Digest magazine, with the average 35-mm film print costing a little more than $1,000, the print cost of the average film release in the U.S. is nearing $3.5 million, with the total annual cost of almost $2 billion. Additional costs for transporting, storing, replacing, insuring, and disposing release prints bumps the total global cost of 35-mm print processing to about $5 billion annually. Digital cinema systems, says Screen Digest, will reduce this cost by as much as 90%.


This may seem hard to believe considering the estimated cost of a single digital projection system is more than $200,000, compared to just $30,000 to $40,000 for 35-mm projectors. But, these costs are based on a very small production capability and single unit pricing, according to Morley, who says this price will come down tremendously when thousands of projectors are needed each year. And, many theaters with smaller screens don't need the very high-brightness projectors which are the most expensive. Many factors are unaccounted for, however, such as maintenance, personnel costs, and so forth, but digital cinema equipment costs can be repaid within three to four years, says Morley, because of the reduced cost to actually distribute the movies.

Going digital will be, in Morley's words, an evolution, not a revolution. Motion pictures will still be created and produced on film for some time to come, he says. Therefore, the final celluloid film format will have to be converted to a digitized electronic format using telecine equipment. Once the motion picture is converted to digital and compressed, it must be electronically encrypted to prevent piracy. Piracy has become a major problem for U.S. film studios, says Morley, costing them more than $2 billion/year. But complex encryption techniques combined with digital fingerprinting of screened programs is said to essentially eliminate the problem.

Today, digital "films" are shipped to cinemas on physical media such as DVD-ROM, but satellite distribution is expected to eventually dominate, reports Screen Digest. When it does, live presentations such as concerts, sporting events, fashion shows, interviews, and corporate events, can be shown in cinema quality.

Thus far, Texas Instruments has made the biggest splash with its digital cinema technology known as Digital Light Processing (DLP) Cinema. For three years, Texas Instruments engineers worked with studios, cinematographers, technical experts, and exhibitors to produce filmlike images digitally. In a nutshell, here's TI's take on what DLP Cinema technology accomplishes: bright images and a clear, crisp picture; a natural and filmlike 24 frames/sec motion without jumping, weaving, or ghosting; and beautiful and repeatable color processing that accurately reproduces the filmmaker's vision. With DLP Cinema, dark and bright scenes can be reproduced with subtle detail and sparkling highlights. Additionally, TI's DLP Cinema system integrates with existing film projector Xenon lamps and lamp housings.

Digital Light Processing's roots can be traced back to 1987. However, DLP Cinema technology — specifically developed for the all-digital movie theater of the future — dates back to 1995, when TI began working on a high-resolution projector called the 1210 Technology Demonstrator Projector.

At the heart of this system is the Digital Micromirror Device optical switch. The DMD semiconductor comprises a rectangular array of 1,280 1,024 microscopic, hinged mirrors, with each mirror representing one pixel. An incoming image is processed and signals are passed to the electrodes underneath each mirror, causing it to switch on or off more than 5,000 times/sec. Light from a lamp is modulated by the mirrors and reflected out through the projection lens.

In the 1210 Technology Demonstration Projector three of these DMDs were used. Light from the lamp is split by a prism into its constituent red, green, and blue parts: red light is passed to one DMD, green to the second, and blue to the third. The modulated light from each microscopic mirror is then recombined and passed through the projection lens.

Success with the 1210 Technology Demonstration Projector led to efforts in 1997 to improve the technology through system upgrades. The result was the DLP Cinema Technology Demonstration Projector, which included a redesigned optical illumination system, a lens attachment that allowed American film industry 1.85:1 aspect-ratio images to be displayed from a 1.25:1 device, and addition of a high-definition digital video interface. Compared to the initial projector system, the new version is said to have increased contrast and image uniformity. To emulate a "film look," the projector was able to display flicker-free images at the standard motion-picture industry rate of 24 frames/sec. Customer feedback — which was designed into the development process by TI — indicated that further improvements were needed, especially in the areas of contrast performance and film-to-digital conversion. The original prototype has been progressively upgraded since then, such that the version currently being featured by TI in its worldwide field demonstration program is said to be the fifth generation of the projector.

So far, the technology has been a hit. In June 1999, audiences had their first look at DLP Cinema in an all digital showing of Lucas Films' blockbuster, "Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace," in New York and Los Angeles. And, at presstime, this new projection technology has been installed in 30 movie theatres in North America, Europe, and Japan with a number of recently released and soon to be released movies planning all digital showings.

"Audiences love it, and movie theaters find it easy to work with," said Doug Darrow, business manager for TI's digital cinema.

"We have demonstrated that DLP Cinema technology is capable of delivering an on-screen image that rivals — and in some ways surpasses — the quality of a film-based image," says Ian McMurray, worldwide media relations manager of digital imaging for TI. "We have a roadmap of developments in place that will see all elements of DLP Cinema image quality progressively upgraded. The important thing to understand, though, is that today, the technology is certainly good enough."

TI has licensed Barco, Christie Systems Inc., and IMAX's Digital Projection to build and price its projectors.

Another key player, JVC, takes a different approach with its Direct-drive Image Light Amplifier (D-ILA) projector technology. This builds on the Hughes-JVC Technology Corp. original ILA projector developed in the early 1990s. The ILA Light Valve is a spatial light modulator that can accept a lowintensity light image and convert it, in real time, to an output image with light from another source. In ILA projectors the image light sources are high-resolution projection CRTs and the output light source is a Xenon arc lamp.

The key feature of the D-ILA, however, is JVC's proprietary reflective-mode active matrix LCD, commonly referred to as LCOS, or liquid crystal on single crystal silicon. Here, the system breaks each image frame into primary colors displayed on three D-ILAs, which are then combined and reach the screen as a single image. The D-ILA is direct-driven, eliminating the CRTs used on ILA projectors. JVC has made huge improvements in its image light amplifier with its new prototype projector. The original D-ILA projector produced 1,365 lines of resolution in contrast ratios of 200:1. With the latest prototype, resolution jumped to about 2,048 horizontal lines with contrast ratios of about 1,000:1.

Further, the company recently introduced QXGA resolution which provides a 3.15 million pixel array. This is a radical improvement from its original SXGA D-ILA device which consisted of 1.4 million pixels. JVC will begin producing the QXGA chips in April of next year.

Other digital cinema projection technologies may mature in the near future. One such system is Laser projection. Leading the charge is Principia Light-works with its Laser Cathode Ray Tube (L-CRT) technology; an electron-beam stimulated laser. According to the company, in a traditional CRT, an electron beam strikes a faceplate coated with red, green, and blue phosphors and produces light by a process known as fluorescence. In the L-CRT, the faceplate is actually a laser resonator and light is produced by laser action. This process is said to not only give projection display the high resolution and quality of a CRT, but the brightness of a light valve.

Moreover, the L-CRT's color gamut is almost twice that of a CRT, say company officials, and offers high contrast with good gray scale and black details. Because phosphor CRTs are typically limited in how much power they can convert to light, they output only about a few hundred lumens, reports the company. On the other hand, the L-CRT produces thousands of lumens in output. The new projection display is also said to maintain the high resolution and multisync capabilities typical of CRT-based devices, while being able to physically dis-play an endless number of pixels.

A unique approach to display technology comes from Silicon Light Machines. Its system builds around two ideas: Grating Light Valve (GLV) technology and Scanned Linear GLV Architecture which together, produce high resolution, high-contrast images. A GLV device, created using CMOS processing and Micro-Electro-mechanical Systems (MEMS) techniques, forms tiny pixels on a silicon chip's surface. Each pixel, made of multiple ribbonlike structures, can move up or down over a short distance by controlling electrostatic forces. Because of the ribbons' arrangement, each pixel either reflects or diffracts light. This way, a pixel array forms a pattern of light and dark points on the chip's surface. Reflected or diffracted light is then collected with a lens system, and an image is formed. In the Scanned GLV Architecture, a linear array of GLV pixels is used to project a single vertical column of image data that is optically scanned at a high rate to produce a complete 2D image. As the scan moves horizontally, GLV pixels change position, forming successive columns of data and creating a high-quality, 2D image on the screen. The GLV devices' high switching speed makes the scanned linear architecture possible.

Silicon Light Machines recently signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Sony Corp. to use this technology in Sony's display projectors as well as other display applications.

Although the technology exists today to replace 35-mm film, there is still much to consider. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) has formed a task group to examine specific areas of digital cinema that need to be standardized such as projection, transmission and storage, and so on. Because digital cinema effects the whole industry, the SMPTE is trying to include as many sectors as possible.

However, audiences that have witnessed digital cinema first hand seem to agree with the experts — today's technology is good enough. In fact, in the groundbreaking digital showing of Star Wars, 98% of the audience said they noticed an improvement, according to a recent study, and 72% said they came just to see "digital."

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