Cinema tech needs to innovate fast

Cinema tech better innovate fast to keep up with picture quality in the living room

Abraham Lincoln told the story of the sage who was asked for a piece of wisdom that applied in all situations. “This too shall pass,” said the sage. So too for technology and entertainment. Nothing lasts forever, and something new is always aborning. So in 2013, dear friends, we mourn the passing of 35mm film, the strip of dreams, while we marvel at the birth of Ultra High-Definition 4K television, which its creators dream will bring the film experience to the home.

(From the pages of the April 16 issue of Variety.)

It’s the Circle of Tech.

But thanks to this synchronicity, we live in strange days. This year, if Netflix and Sony stick to their plans, there will be early viewers with 4K Ultra HD televisions watching 4K movies on-demand. Meanwhile, movie theaters will still be taking delivery of 2K digital cinema packages (i.e. DCPs) on hard drives shipped by plane and truck. Home theater will have leapfrogged the cinema.

I was going to raise this issue with Christopher Nolan when I spoke with him about the end of film prints, but he brought it up first. “2K digital projectors are basically just high-definition TVs projected,” he said. “In an era when you can now buy a 4K television that has four times the data of what your local theater is throwing up on the bigscreen, it’s a very perilous transition to be forcing on the industry.”

I agree. But cinema has faced such peril before, and as history teaches us (to paraphrase another wise man), the movie business can be counted on to do the right thing — once it has exhausted all other possibilities.

Cinema has hordes of ingenious technologists laboring to upgrade its product. Sometimes they succeed, especially if they can argue their innovations will cut costs (digital cinema!), lure auds (70mm! Digital sound!) or command an upcharge (3D! Imax!). But they’re always swimming against the tide. It’s not that exhibitors and distributors don’t care about improving quality, it’s just that trying to get them to agree on anything new and big is well nigh impossible.

But for TV manufacturers, the ability to offer ever-better picture, ever-truer sound, ever-cooler features is most of the game. If they can inspire consumers to upgrade, they can sell billions of units. So the cycle of history is: Cinema gets a head start, TV catches up, cinema panics and lurches forward. Repeat.

UHD TV will force cinema to lurch to its next evolution, and upgrading all cinemas to 4K, highframe rate and 3D won’t be enough. That will only get cinemas to parity with the latest in TV.

I’m betting the first thing to change will be invisible to the audience: No more shipping hard drives with 2K DCPs; it’s time for delivery by broadband.

Then, inevitably, cinema will have its moment of panic. My guess is that the movie biz will turn to a proven format it knows TV can’t match: giantscreens like Imax, which boast frames of approximately 12K resolution. An 8K version of UHD has been demonstrated by Japan’s NHK, but nobody expects TV as we know it to go beyond that. So I’d be surprised if giantscreens don’t become more prevalent and of greater importance to the cinema business as UHD becomes the dominant TV format.

Then, to make the theatrical experience really stand apart from TV, they’ll throw in some of the advanced cinema tech now in the pipeline: high frame rate, enhanced color, laser-driven projectors and more.

That upgrade cycle for TV and theaters could last 15-20 years. Which, not coincidentally, takes us to about when holographic TV is supposed to be ready. When that day comes, we’ll mourn the passing of 4K UHD, and cinema will evolve again.

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