Christie Digital’s offerings for an enhanced cinema experience include its new 6P 3D laser projection system that ramps brightness up to 2D levels, as well as the Vive Audio speaker system. Adrian Pennington reports.

To revive the stagnant box office for 3D ticket sales, exhibitors should invest in new technology that presents films at their true brightness.

That is the argument being put forward by studios and equipment vendors, notably 20th Century Fox and Christie Digital, which jointly demonstrated Christie’s new 6P 3D laser projection system at screenings of Life Of Pi and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes at the IBC show in Amsterdam in mid September.

The supposition is that some films screened using existing 3D projection systems do not throw enough light to the screen and can exacerbate feelings of nausea contributing to the global attrition of 3D ticket sales.

“If audiences are asked to pay a premium, they had better get a superior experience, not an inferior one,” says Don Shaw, senior director, product management, at Christie. “There are a number of technical limitations with current 3D systems resulting in lacklustre quality, the most serious one being restricted light levels that amount to only 10%-30% of those achieved for 2D presentations.”

Backing the 6P system, film-making innovator Douglas Trumbull says the lack of screen brightness was one reason he retired from directing films after 1983’s Brainstorm. He showed the experimental short UTOFOG on the system at IBC.

“I didn’t want to spend three years of passion on a film only to see it wasted on appalling presentation,” he says. “If we get high brightness, high colour depth, high frame rate and high resolution, we can get back to making spectacular, immersive experiences that TV will find impossible to replicate.”

Christie’s laser technology has been in the works since its Japanese parent Ushio acquired laser technology specialist Necsel in 2010. Dual projector heads deliver six specific primary colours, rather than broad-spectrum white light, to ramp up light efficiency for 3D projection on a par with 2D. Dolby 3D glasses have been tuned to exactly match the wavelengths output from the projector. “We believe this is the future of 3D cinema projection and that it will be a key element in boosting 3D box-office revenues around the world,” Shaw adds.

‘If audiences are asked to pay a premium, they had better get a superior experience’

Don Shaw, Christie Digital

In fact, the value of the global 3D cinema market edged up by 2%, to hit $7.4bn in 2013 (according to research from IHS) but the average split of box office retained from 3D screens per title dropped to 41.4% last year from 52% in 2012.

Fox has backed laser exhibition, vowing to master its 3D releases at 14 foot-lamberts (fL), the same light levels as 2D and a substantial improvement on the 4fL or 6fL possible with existing 3D digital projectors. Other studios are reportedly making the same move.

“Laser has the potential to change the economics of the exhibition industry but we can’t yet see the viability until technology costs come down,” says David Hancock, senior principal analyst for cinema at IHS Technology.

Richard Nye, cinema sales director for Christie EMEA, admits the cost is “significantly more expensive” than conventional projection systems but says the technology can be scaled according to screen size and brightness.

“We built the system using laser modules each of 4,000 lumens [a measure of light generated by the projector] up to a maximum of 96,000 lumens so that theatre owners have the choice of adding or taking away individual modules depending on their requirements,” says Nye. “We can also help with finance packages.”

Exhibitors would also lower their costs over time by not having to buy replacement Xenon lamps, while power consumption is also reduced. The main pitch to exhibitors though “is about taking your principal large-format screen and making it the best movie theatre in your city”, argues Shaw.

“It adds immediate value to customers and could be marketed as delivering greater colour and light than has ever been seen before.” By putting its marketing dollars into 6P, Christie hopes to steal a march on competitor Sony, which has amassed 18,000 installs of its 4K projection system but has yet to commercialise a laser technology (laser solution rivals include Barco and NEC, the latter of which targets smaller screens).

Sound progress

Laser illumination is one of several technical advances under evaluation by studios and exhibitors to enhance the cinema experience. Immersive sound is another.

Christie introduced Vive Audio this year to support next generation formats Dolby Atmos and Auro 11.1, as well as commonly used 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound. It is a set of surround and screen channel speakers, subwoofers and amplifiers that can be designed to boost a theatre’s listening area up to four times that of conventional audio systems. “We designed the speakers with Atmos in mind and together with Vive this helps deliver a more natural sound to the audience,” says Shaw.