Attendees at SMPTE’s Summit on Cinema in Las Vegas this weekend will get an early peek at the future of movies.
The question is when will that future arrive?
One just announced demo is a sure bet to start showing up in theaters within the next few years. Laser Light Engines, the Salem, N.H., based maker of laser lights, will hook up a specially built laser light source to a Sony projector and show 3D on a silver screen at high frame rates and with an expanded color gamut. This will be the first demo of laser-driven projection on a silver screen.
Imax has committed to deploying laser-driven projectors in 2013. Digital Imax theaters use silver screens.
The combination of lasers and silver screens has proven a thorny challenge for engineers. Laser light is prone to “speckling” when it bounces off any surface, which makes it problematic for projectors unless “despeckling” is built in somehow.
Bill Beck, LLE’s founder and exec VP of business development, said, “We announced full despeckling at ShoWest two years ago but then along came 3D and a large number of silver screens, and it’s much harder to despeckle on a high-gain silver screen. It’s the last piece we had to solve.”
Lasers promise brighter light and a wider color palette on the screen while using less power and generating very little heat, reducing the need for cooling the projector and the booth. Laser light engines are expected to last 50-60 times as long as the xenon lamps now in projectors and don’t get dimmer over their lifespan, as xenon lamps do. Lasers can also be rack-mounted and the light piped into the projector with fiber optic cable. That means older projectors can be retrofitted for laser light. At the Summit, the LLE laser engine will be hooked up to a Sony projector just that way for the demo.
With lasers, Beck said, “You can talk about truly boothless projection. Take the business end of the projector, put it in its own box, hang it from the ceiling and pipe the light and the content in by fiber optic cable.”
The setup LLE will show is a one-off for the demo, not a production unit.
High frame rates will be the sole focus of another session, this one moderated by SMPTE exec VP Wendy Aylsworth. Auds will get their first mass look at an HFR movie when “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” hits screens in December. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien pic was shot and will be shown in digital cinemas at 48 frames per second, twice the standard in place since the early days of talkies. The higher frame rates deliver clearer images for action and motion, especially in 3D.
While d-cinema projectors are made to handle up to 72 fps per eye in 3D, the servers that deliver data to those projectors may require upgrades before they can show HFR content.
Aylsworth’s panel will include some innovative ways of capturing and showing 3D content, including an experiment testing whether it’s better to capture both eyes simultaneously or to capture and project them at slightly different moments. “Nobody’s seen this,” said Aylsworth. “It’s a science experiment on the fly.”
SMPTE is well aware of the problems with dark images and motion artifacts for 3D. Aylsworth said: “There’s still a vast amount of improvement that could come in the future for 3D. We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg of what we could do to enhance the viewer’s experience.”
4K resolution, laser projection and high frame rates would all improve the audience experience, but the servers and processors in today’s d-cinema systems are too slow to handle either HFR or 3D at 4K — much less all three at once.
“It’s just a matter of money,” Aylsworth said.