During the several years while DCI was giving birth to its spec, there emerged 2K (2048 x 1080) and 4K (4096 x 2160) image resolutions. TI clung onto 2K, while Sony pursued 4K. Up until Regal’s recent announcement, Sony wasn’t taken very seriously. AMC’s decision to convert to Sony 4K, announced at ShoWest, was expected. AMC has a history of blindly following the latest and not always greatest in technology (torus suction screens with above-screen speakers and SDDS sound come to mind). Muvico has been installing Sony 4K in new installations, but this is a boutique exhibitor with under 300 screens – not a trend setter.
The 2K companies had Regal. Dolby and Doremi had a split of Regal’s 6500 screens lined up, while Barco was expecting an order for around 5000 projectors. But this is all history now.
TI is left with two options. It can stay 2K, and let the sun set on its efforts in digital cinema. Or it can move to a 4K platform. Certainly, it has the ability to do the later. TI’s latest DLP chip, the Pico chip, targeted for use as a cell phone projector, has a mirror pitch that’s 55% of that used in the 1.2” chip of the largest DLP projectors. Such technology could potentially lead to a 1.3” 4K chip. Potential, however, is a mischievous word. After cutting back its engineering force in January, it would take several years for TI to produce a marketable 4K light engine.
What could TI do in the meantime? Your author has been an advocate for the smaller screens of the world, where price matters more than lumens. To enable lower cost manufacturers, however, would require TI to take radical steps and change current licensing agreements with its OEMs. To take radical steps, TI, and its OEMs, has to feel pain. As painful as Regal’s decision must be, it’s probably not painful enough. More is needed.
The reaction of exhibitors in the US to Regal’s call for 4K could indicate significant pain ahead for TI. The exhibition community is split between those that see future benefit in going digital, and those who see it only as an increase in capex requirements. If willing to go digital sooner than later, then the exhibitor will still wait, as the 4K projector that Regal gets will most certainly be better than the 4K projector one can buy today. If not eager to switch to digital, then the exhibitor will simply wait longer, as surely Sony’s ability to supply Regal and AMC is limited, and this will buy the exhibitor more time before having to go digital.
The near term future for TI is outside of the US. Digital distribution, coupled with more efficient forms of advertising, will light fires under regional movie production houses. If more product is available digitally, then it matters more that one has a digital projector, and less as to whether or not its 2K or 4K. Another argument is that, without a dominant exhibitor in Europe to set consumer expectations, technology may not become as much of a competitive issue as it appears to be in the US.
When looking into one’s crystal ball, there are other factors to be aware of that could affect digital cinema for years to come. While 4K may sound like the innovative technology, Sony Electronics has always been a follower in digital cinema. This is a natural result of the distance Sony keeps between its engineers and the digital cinema engineering community, as much as its choice of display technology, which is analog in nature, leaving plenty of problems to solve, often by brute force, just to get to an image. In contrast, TI led the digital cinema revolution simply because its technology works, and is elegant in nature. If Sony’s success should cause industry leaders such as Dolby and Doremi to look to other industries for profits, then where will innovation come from?
To demonstrate why innovation is important, consider the sophisticated motorized lens operation of a few of the 2K projector manufacturers, where a change in masking or picture format causes an automatic change in lens zoom, preserving all of the pixels of the image and eliminating the need to crop and letterbox images (which lowers the display resolution). Then look at the picture below.
The photo was supplied by an exhibitor attempting to make a statement. The lens arrangement shown is obviously for 3-D. The exhibitor’s point was that the lens mount is so cumbersome that one simply keeps it in place when playing a 2-D movie. This results in sub-2K images on screen for 2-D. It’s an example of inelegant, brute force engineering. This is one among several issues exhibitors have, or will have once the product attempts to become DCI compliant. Sony deserves much credit for passionately pushing its technology to the edge so that it could become a player in digital cinema. But whether it has the passion to lead the industry remains to be seen.
Clearly, Sony leaves room for competition. The question is whether TI, and its family of OEMs and affiliates, including Christie, Barco, NEC, Dolby, Doremi, GDC, and so on, find enough business to stay in the game while TI pursues a yet-to-be-announced 4K chip. As said earlier, the international market is the key to near term success.