II Precipitates Assumptions
Are We There Yet?
by Michael Karagosian
NATO Digital Cinema Consultant
As the number
of digital cinema systems grew in advance of Lucasfilms Attack
of the Clones, the pitches that were being tossed could easily
make one think that digital cinema is ready for rollout, and that
standards now exist for digital cinema. In fact, Clones
brought the number of incompatible systems in the field to three.
Is this a red flag? Or should we relax and sit back as the grand
experiment of digital cinema continues?
If all of the
stakeholders were happy campers, we might actually call an end to
the experiment, pick and choose and move on. But not all stakeholders
are happy with the quality level of todays digital cinema
technology. Even those who are willing to present movies on digital
systems utilizing current technology would really like to have something
better. Rather than stop the ball from rolling more experimentation
is needed. Which means dont worry about incompatibility for
now. Were on the lookout today for quality, not necessarily
question today is will digital cinema be allowed to move beyond
the mediocrity that became the legacy of early digital audio,
or will it achieve an excellence that we can enjoy for many
years to come?
truth has its effect on the standards process. There is a joke that
espouses how wonderful it is to have so many standards to choose
from. But digital cinema has a different problem: there are so many
things to standardize. While in this phase of experimentation, we
do not have a standard image compression. But thats
our goal. We dont have a standard encryption.
But that, too, is our goal. We dont have a standard
decryption key management system. Of course, this is also a goal.
And while there may be a popular projector deployed today, it wouldnt
be appropriate to call this a standard, either. Yet
projection interfaces and standard colorimetry are high on our list
of standards to create.
of quality can be elusive for standards makers. Quality has an arbitrary
property to it. What constitutes quality? Answer: Youll know
it when you see it. Plenty of man-hours have been spent in standards
committees arguing over factors that determine quality. But without
technology to test, the discussion becomes difficult at best. Thus
the need for innovative manufacturers, the complement of which is
experimentation in the field.
compression. The initial installations of prototype digital cinema
systems utilized the QuVis QPE wavelet compression algorithm.
The high confidence level in this technology among content providers
is one of the factors that allowed the industry to enter a successful
prototype phase. In mid-2001, Jurassic Park III was
the first feature to be selectively presented using an adaptation
of MPEG2 video compression. The results encouraged more experimentation
with MPEG2. In December 2001, Oceans Eleven was
selectively presented using Qualcomms ABSolute image
compression, again with positive results. In May 2002, Attack
of the Clones was released using all three: QuVis QPE,
MPEG2, and Qualcomms Absolute. This level of experimentation
is what we should expect in a prototype phase. But we should not
confuse this as the prelude to a rollout intended to convert all
When will we
be ready to choose? That remains to be seen. In the compression
space, there are other compression technologies that may find their
way into the theatre for experimentation. Motion JPEG, or a version
thereof, has been suggested. Of special interest is that the MPEG
standards body is taking steps towards the creation of an international
compression standard for digital cinema. Would that involve simply
picking one technology, or combining the best of several different
technologies, as MPEG is so successful at doing? This is another
question that remains to be answered, but it certainly brings up
the issue of cost. A technology that uses the IPR (intellectual
property rights) of several companies in a small market could become
expensive. Cost is definitely an issue that has to be evaluated.
Unfortunately, this is not something that a standards committee
can do. Its something that only a group of users can do. In
fact, cost as a differentiator may demand that some standards are
de facto rather than de jure, meaning that someone other than a
standards body makes the call.
issues could arise for decryption key management. Interoperability
of key management systems is an issue that SMPTEs DC28 Technology
Committee is now exploring. Projectors have been the only technology
to not experience competition in the prototype systems. But competition
is on the way. The challenge of standards for digital projection
is to allow multiple makes of projectors to compete in the marketplace
while ensuring to a producer that what they see is what the audience
gets. This requires interoperability at several levels, which have
yet to appreciate experimentation in the field.
of 35mm film with a digital format is inevitable. But it doesnt
have to come at the cost of quality to those who create with it
and find inspiration in it. Where will this experimentation phase
end? Im reminded of the digital transition in consumer audio
back in the 70s. Had we waited a little longer, simply extending
the number of bits to 18 or 20 instead of 16, or by raising the
sampling rate, we would have lessened the incentive to produce the
HDCD and Super Audio CD formats that have lent confusion to the
today is will digital cinema be allowed to move beyond the mediocrity
that became the legacy of early digital audio, or will it achieve
an excellence that we can enjoy for many years to come? The answer
depends on how long we can wait. At best we wont wait long,
but long enough.