Digital cinema equipment is anything but mature. Early equipment architectures were not original, based on a standalone server and a standalone projector. Texas Instruments had the option early on to include media block functionality in its licensed design for the DLP CinemaTM projector. Had TI been more aggressive in its hardware approach, it could have eased the transition from MPEG2 to JPEG 2000, and of Interop to SMPTE DCP.
TI had the option to ignore the media block as it was only focused on 2K image resolution. Standard dual-link HD-SDI transmission between server and projector could support 2K. But Sony had no such option. Sony chose to pursue 4K from the start, for which no standard transmission linkage exists between server and projector. It had no option other than to include the media block in the projector itself. Now that TI has finally introduced its own 4K projector, its licensees now face the need for internal media blocks.
Looking ahead, the TI projector licensees will seek the lowest cost media block that can be driven by popular software. To become a commodity, the media block requires a common interface that allows more than one external server to utilize it. Recognition of this need to develop a common interface led to the formation of a group titled Common Media Block Interface, or CoMBI. Dolby Laboratories, not having the stomach to invest in the development of 4K digital cinema hardware, liked the idea so much that it broke from CoMBI and started its own group called Digital Cinema Open Systems Alliance (DCOSI), along with XDC, Mikrom, and USL. Not obvious from its name, DCOSI is a closed group. In true Dolby fashion, the company believes it can privately develop an interface, and then dictate the design to competing server manufacturers. Having lost the digital cinema market early on to cinema newbie Doremi through sheer arrogance and market blindness, Dolby is on track to face further embarrassment through its DCOSI effort.
The commodity media block, however, is a step in the right direction in that it allows for the development of hardware-independent server software for the cinema. This, in turn, paves the road to the real transition underway: enterprise software for the cinema, or “cinema-in-a-box.” Early steps towards cinema-in-a-box technology will incorporate TMS, library server, and screen server functionality in a fully integrated projection booth management product. Eventually, cinema-in-a-box will incorporate point-of-sale, digital signage, and enterprise-level operations. The market demand for this will have a simple cause: only the largest of exhibitors can afford to integrate all of this functionality when purchased from independent vendors. Efficiency will rule.
Efficiency will be the mantra in projectors, too. Certainly, when it comes to reducing the cost of ownership of a system, the cost of the projector tops the list. The most significant contribution to future projection technology in 2010 was from Kodak, for which details were addressed in prior month’s reports. Kodak proved that the cost of optics in digital projectors, perhaps the single largest component cost, can be significantly reduced by changing the light source. Kodak did this by introducing a laser light source, which in itself can bring about long-term savings in operational costs. Kodak’s laser light source is not as polished as its optical design, though, creating metameric problems in picture quality, and relying on a laser supplier with an unproven track record. It is also a licensed design, leaving it to the licensee to fix the issues. A competing light source design from Laser Light Engines could prove to be the better choice. To add another wrinkle to the list, before any laser light source can find its way into the cinema, there are regulatory issues that must first be overcome.
Neither cinema-in-a-box nor new projector technologies will be appearing on showroom floors soon. These technologies will be part of a long-term transition. But the concepts provide the blueprint for future M&A activity. If you’re a cinema owner, the blueprint will help you pick the vendors you want to partner with today. Projector companies face a less disruptive future, as they only need to be concerned with the supply of DCI-compliant media blocks and licensable projector designs. But server companies will have to be more clever, and more nimble. If those are the primary attributes for survival, then it should be easy to pick wisely.