Beginning in 2000 and continuing today, SMPTE accomplished the remarkable task of standardizing technology that didn’t exist when its digital cinema committee was first formed. For the first 9 years of this effort, a collaborative effort among competitors was nurtured that allowed the development of over 30 documents that are now core to digital cinema around the world. The working relationship achieved among competitors during that time may very well be unparalleled in any technology industry. But now that there is no longer the need to invent technology, the scenario that originally bound competitors to collaboration has changed. It is unfortunate, as there is further to go.
The digital cinema effort within SMPTE is now focused on the areas of metadata in the post production stage, subtitles, sound, and frame rates. Each of these efforts are useful and address real problems. But the industry’s biggest problems, which are security key management and content management (in face of the number of versions of content that must now be managed), are not being addressed at all in SMPTE. This is indicative of a larger problem in the industry: there is no longer a forum where large scale issues are openly discussed and solved.
ISDCF is often thought of as the new forum for problem solving. ISDCF indeed serves an important role in the industry. The group’s leader bills it as “therapy for digital cinema,” which serves as an accurate description of the group’s activities. It is a forum for sharing. And sharing does facilitate solutions from time-to-time. But it is not a forum geared to nurture collaboration where really big problems get addressed.
The ISDCF Plugfests serve as an excellent example of this group’s activities. Plugfests are designed to test product interoperability in real world situations. Notably, Plugfests are not “shootouts.” Most Plugfests are conducted to examine the interoperable implementation of SMPTE standards. Manufacturers willingly participate, working side-by-side, to learn how to build better products. “Failure” is not rejection, and does not lead to punitive action. Instead, failure is a statement that further engineering is needed to fully interoperate in an acceptable manner. Better to learn how one fares with one’s competitor in a supportive environment of peers, than in the battlefield of customers. Each manufacturer willingly returns to the next Plugfest to further measure the degree of interoperability of its products. An environment that is conducive to improvement is created. That’s therapy in action. But therapy is not collaboration.
Collaboration has several components to it. It requires shared identification of the problem to be solved. It requires that deep knowledge be shared, which in turn requires that people with deep knowledge participate. And it requires a commitment to implement. This requires more than simply putting top executives in a room together. The executive group may be comprised of a talented set of managers, but may not represent a talented set of problem solvers. In fact, experience has shown that both are required to work together for successful collaboration: the executive, and the problem solver.
In the early days of SMPTE’s digital cinema effort, both sets of talent were present in the same room. Creation of a successful format was of high importance to many stakeholders, which in turn created a collaborative environment richly populated by talented individuals. But cost-cutting and the existence of a successful digital cinema format has made it difficult to justify sustainment of such an effort. While smaller, easy-to-identify problems are being addressed by the system that exists today, bigger problems, such as security key management, continue to fester.
The remaining element needed for successful collaboration is that someone outside the core group of stakeholders is needed to pull the group together. That someone could be a former executive of the industry, of which there are several worthy candidates to choose from. An organization for hosting the effort must also be found, but that should be an easier task.
Digital cinema was born out of collaboration, a tribute to a process that seeks consensus in problem solving. With additional problems to solve, it would benefit greatly from more of it.