You knew it was coming. Interop DCP is winning. SMPTE DCP is failing. There are a handful of reasons for this, the most important of which is that Interop is proven to work on all “DCI compliant” digital cinema systems around the world. One could say that DCI has failed, although that’s a bit harsh. To shore things up a bit, I’ll review what DCI has done well. What’s really missing is industry leadership. Not that leadership should have caused the adoption of the SMPTE DCP, but rather, leadership could have diverted energy and expectations into better outcomes.
DCI has done certain things very well, starting with trust. Trust is the core value underlying any transaction. For example, if you didn’t trust that ATMs securely handle your request for cash, it’s unlikely you would use them. Trust is of prime importance to digital cinema. Distributors need to trust that distributed content cannot be copied and played without their authority. Similarly, exhibitors have little interest in buying equipment that isn’t trusted by their content suppliers. The issue of trust occupies 69 pages of the 155-page v1.2 DCI specification. Trust continues to dominate DCI’s work. The introduction of the Dolby Atmos outboard processor caused DCI in 2014 to release the most significant revision of the DCI spec in years in order to definitively address the changes required of its security rules. Thanks to DCI, SMPTE security standards are fully in place in all systems around the world. Without DCI’s effective management of trust, it’s hard to imagine that digital cinema would be the success it is today.
However, DCI has its failures, too. DCI prescribes the use of SMPTE DCP, but even today only a tiny fraction of content is released in SMPTE DCP. The Interop format, which is not standardized by SMPTE, works well with SMPTE security standards, for practical reasons. An important goal in the early development of digital cinema standards was to implement standardized security messages across all systems. This was evidenced by the prioritized work within SMPTE to first produce the standardized Key Delivery Message (KDM) in 2006, three years ahead of the first standard for SMPTE DCP. To support the urgency, ISDCF circulated a transition guideline to move manufacturers and exhibitors from Interop KDM to SMPTE KDM while Interop DCP was being deployed.
Timing played an important role in Interop’s success and SMPTE DCP’s failure. In 2006, there were only 2000 systems that required security upgrades, a manageable number. Digital cinema sales were still slow, and sales were driven by VPF financing, which in turn required support for DCI specifications. When the digital cinema rollout began, the only standards that DCI could point to were security standards, and manufacturers were keen to comply.
By the end of 2009, the number of installations grew to under 8000, significantly raising the bar to adoption of a new standard. Studios were delivering content, and trust in the technology was evident. Having crossed the content and trust hurdles, manufacturers shifted focus to 3D, which at the time was a major driver of digital projection sales. The release of SMPTE DCP in 2009 was not on anyone’s radar, or to-do list.
To further complicate the transition to SMPTE DCP, there were glitches. Incompatible subtitles plagued the format, and continue to do so today. For reasons that appear to have been driven by over zealous lawyers at TI, the SMPTE DCP subtitling standard differed significantly from that of Interop, as Interop relied on a subtitle format originally defined by TI, but disclosed only under NDA. Adding to headaches, a new projector design was forthcoming in 2010 (the TI Series 2), which didn’t support the new standard, for all the wrong reasons. TI was informed by a major server manufacturer that its new servers would perform subtitle rendering, and that new projectors would no longer need to do this. Evidently, TI didn’t do its homework to appreciate that not every manufacturer saw things the same way, nor did TI grasp the impact caused by spotty adoption of rendering-in-the-server technology and the visual incompatibilities it would cause. The result was that had distributors immediately adopted the new standard, the performance of subtitling, relied upon by many countries, would have failed under SMPTE DCP. While these problems have been largely corrected in Series 2 projectors and media blocks, it continues to be a problem with Series 1 projector and older servers, of which thousands are installed and operating.
The lessons are evident when introducing change: timing is everything, and all stakeholders must be onboard.
Bringing all stakeholders onboard requires skill. Inevitably, it means reaching out to competitors, which can be quite difficult for large companies, particularly public ones. Standards committees can provide a legal umbrella under which such conversations can be held, but such conversations require leadership, and no digital cinema standards committee today demonstrates the degree of leadership required to perform this task. Standards leaders today are focused on how to get the immediate task done, often with no appreciation for how the task at hand fits into the larger picture. DCI is not of much help here, as DCI itself is so deeply mired in its concern over anti-trust behavior that not one member can stand up and say he or she represents the organization. The result is that standards work has become disconnected from the real world of distributing movies, favoring procedural rules over common sense. If one standard doesn’t quite do the job, then a revised standard, or a completely new standard will, driven by a company that didn’t buy into an earlier one. This phenomenon occurs in many industries, captured humorously with the phrase: “the wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.”
When it comes to timing, technical perfection is rarely the trigger. Every engineer who has developed a product understands that there comes a point where new ideas and improvements must be set aside and the product must ship. The same applies to standards and specifications. Improvements are always possible. But there needs to be a gate in place that moderates how and when such improvements move into the field. This, too, is an area where DCI has not been of much help. In the case of Dolby Atmos, where the security provisions of the DCI spec clearly needed improvement, Dolby was advised by several studios to move in one direction, which it did, and a year later, after having time to mull it over, DCI directed Dolby to move in the other direction. It appears that DCI is better at reacting than pro-acting, which provides insight as to where the organization’s strengths really lie. As DCI ponders high dynamic range and expanded color spaces, it is more likely to react than to lead.
As we leave 2014 for 2015, we look back on the state of digital cinema. If 2015 brings any change to the technology leadership void, it’s unlikely to come from standards committees or DCI. And it’s a safe bet that a year from now we’ll still be talking about the transition to SMPTE DCP.