ISDCF and related SMPTE groups have held meetings in recent months, and it’s worth commenting on the direction these groups are moving in. In addition, DCI continues to be active, and a recent post on its web site deserves highlighting.
ISDCF continues its focus on SMPTE DCP implementation and automation of security key management, efforts that may be running out of steam. The challenge with these programs is that there are parties that need to invest who are not likely to benefit. SMPTE DCP is the poster child for non-action. While a fair percentage of US exhibitors are willing to commit, anything less than 100% is insufficient. Notably, ISDCF has yet to consider how this would rollout worldwide. No studio has shown interest in risking box office revenue by releasing exclusively with SMPTE DCP, and no studio will realize benefits by releasing both Interop and SMPTE DCP versions of a movie. Faced already with the requirement to create a few hundred versions of Interop DCPs, the prospect of multiplying that number by two to accommodate SMPTE DCP is difficult to fathom.
Key management suffers a somewhat different problem. The standardized version of the KDM is already in use, but no standardized mechanism for delivery of the KDM exists, and a common method has not been implemented for electronically collecting the information that causes the correct KDM to be generated. SMPTE formed a drafting group several months back to address the second problem, but that group has yet to meet. More importantly, the companies that must invest in the R&D required to bring new standards for security key management into being will have no way to monetize their investment. This is particularly true for TMS manufacturers, who are not incentivized to implement new standards.
SMPTE’s 21DC technology commitee on Digital Cinema has had a productive year from a document perspective, but the problems that plague the work in ISDCF also impact the utility of the ongoing work in this group. Completed work includes the CPL Metadata document ST 429-16, which if widely implemented, would provide a new tool for automating content and security key management. However, it requires the use of SMPTE DCP, and it requires R&D effort from TMS manufacturers to implement, neither of which is likely to occur for many years. A stellar effort has completed to standardize the implementation of stereoscopic subtitles. The updated document is ST 428-7, which is only used with SMPTE DCP. Unless a version of this work is adopted into the Interop format, the industry is unlikely to benefit from this work for quite some time. Dolby’s work on Atmos, however, in the form of ST 429-14 Aux Data Track File, and ST 429-15 Aux Data Composition Asset, as well as its privately registered RDD documents for the Atmos bitstream and printmaster specifications, are actively in use today. If anything, this illustrates the difference between funded and unfunded work. Dolby’s work is funded by Dolby, while no funds exist to implement the other work undertaken by this committee.
Regarding unfunded efforts, Phil Clapp, CEO of the UK Cinema Exhibitors’ Association, recently commented in a similar vein during a European panel on the future of cinema: “My understanding…is that there is no appetite from studios for a second VPF, even if no studio is prepared to state that publicly.” It is the VPF that funded the SMPTE digital cinema work of the last decade, but that funding is now history. Inexplicably, this fact has not caused a more rational approach to emerge for introducing improvements into the digital cinema workflow.
The most important work undertaken by the SMPTE 25CSS technology group on Cinema Sound Systems is that of standardizing immersive sound. Those who expect this work to be completed by the end of this year will be disappointed. But this disappointment should be viewed a result of misplaced expectations, and not a sign of failure. Immersive sound is largely a funded effort, with a handful of companies that appear willing to invest in a standard distribution format, including Auro, Barco, Dolby, DTS, and Technicolor. Where this effort suffers is the lack of adequate preliminary work. A preliminary immersive audio study effort conducted earlier by SMPTE lacked proper guidance and was largely useless towards the generation of a standard. As a result, the actual standards effort now underway struggles to define the underpinnings of its work. The group must bring a multitude of inputs together into an effort that has never before been attempted: the distribution of cinema sound tracks with accompanying metadata that allows the sound track to be played, with reasonable accuracy, on competitive renderers and speaker systems, with no restrictions on where speakers are placed. If you understand cinema sound, you may shake your head after reading this long-winded statement and think the effort to be mad. You may be right. But recall that this is a funded effort, and that could keep this project in play for several years to come as it strives to produce useful work. Of course, the most ironic outcome would be if the immersive sound distribution standard only worked with SMPTE DCP. (No escape!)
Notably, SMPTE DCP does not receive attention on DCI’s website. Instead, the subject of the month for DCI has been laser illuminated projectors. DCI now lists on its website approved laser projectors from Barco, Christie, and NEC, but with this important note:
Note Regarding Laser-Illuminated Projectors
Having passed the CTP in its current form, DCI is now listing some laser-illuminated projection systems as compliant. However, DCI has not performed a comprehensive assessment, similar to original system testing, of the imagery of laser systems on various available screen types. Additionally, the possibility exists for anomalies in the projected image. DCI is taking steps to add new image tests to future versions of the CTP. In the interim, DCI encourages consultation with industry experts to ensure a thorough understanding of the issues and limits, if any, with laser-based systems.
Laser illuminated projectors come in two flavors: multiple laser-generated primaries, and single laser coupled with phosphor-generated primaries. All three DLP projector companies produce projectors with laser-generated primaries. The negative image qualities produced by laser-generated primaries are largely speckle and metameric failure. (Both described elsewhere in mkpeReport.) There is no way to test these qualities, and thus no way to grade them. This is not a problem that will be solved overnight, as it will require a funded effort to produce useful results.
Phosphor-generated primaries is a technique employed by NEC on one projector today, but this is a technique likely to be followed by the other manufacturers. Projectors using phosphor-generated primaries are relatively low cost, and can purportedly pay for themselves in several years time based on bulb savings. Economy of scale will drive further development as the blue light lasers used in these projectors find their way into automotive headlights. (As has already been announced by BMW.) But as attractive as the economics of these projectors may be, concern for the quality of color produced is causing heartburn deep in Hollywood. Whether such concern is warranted remains to be seen. An early evaluation by ASC Technology Committee members did not produce happy people. But negative results at this early a stage in the development of this technology should not be cause for doom. Cheerfully, unlike so many other efforts now ongoing in digital cinema, this is a funded effort, which includes the funding of fixes.