It was July 20, 2005 when DCI released version 1.0 of its Digital Cinema System Specification. The release was not a surprise: it was the culmination of many earlier versions, circulated for comment over a 2 1/2 year period. The spec is an impressive work considering that it required the agreement of six major corporations that openly compete. It was also the signal that studios were ready for the transition to digital projection, as the specification is what they would require to be met as a condition to subsidize the replacement of film projectors with digital. DCI carried on following that event to create its Compliance Test Plan (CTP) and maintain its specification. But now, ten years later, DCI has reached a turning point. Its specification is showing signs of age, and it’s means of managing it are coming into question, too.
To provide some perspective, the DCI spec was created and released years before the iPhone existed. The iPhone comes to mind as a recognized gauge for how quickly technology advances. Likewise, digital cinema technology continues to improve, but it has not caused a rush to advance the DCI spec as the capital requirement to widely improve systems puts such a goal out of reach. However, even the compliance test process itself is showing its age, and that is cause for re-examining the entire process of specification and compliance.
Regardless of what is said in the DCI specification, it is the DCI Compliance Test Plan that is definitive. The CTP methodically sifts through the specification and turns it into a meaningful exercise that a manufacturer must meet. Manufacturers submit new designs to a CTP test lab, engaging in a process where the lab works with the manufacturer to fix problems and pass tests. Upon passing CTP, the positive results are sent to DCI, who then passively posts the report on its web site and proclaims the product as compliant.
The process sounds nice on paper, but in practice, results vary. By the time a product passes CTP, the model has already been sold in the marketplace. Without individually testing each device, it can be challenging for a distributor to figure out if the version of product in an auditorium is truly compliant, as its not possible to associate a compliant product with only digital certificate or serial number. Presumably, older product can be updated. Whether that update actually took place, however, is harder to trace. Once a device is put into service, a different set of rules particular to its owner applies as to if and when updates are applied, if indeed the compliant update is available.
DCI attempts to dictate both quality and security in compliant products. Of the two, it is more effective at managing security. But even with security, DCI’s role and methodology is not as solid as perceived. A manufacturer may jump through hoops to pass CTP, but if the product is already in production, and distributors already playing movies on it, then the effectiveness of DCI comes into question. DCI’s CTP is designed to establish trust in a product. But when it comes to the actual determination, trust is associated more with a manufacturer than with a product. It is individual studios, not DCI, who determine trust in the marketplace.
If the formal process of passing CTP is not directly associated with trust, then perhaps it would be wise to revisit the testing process. The goal would be to reduce costs and headaches, both to manufacturers, and to studios. Costs can be reduced by simply accepting the test results produced by manufacturers, who already self test to reduce lab testing fees. The concept of self testing and self-assurance has been successfully applied by others, such as Open Group, in other industries. The Open Group process requires a declaration of compliance to a specification that is accompanied with a right to advertise compliance in association with the use of a compliance logo. If a product is found to have problems, Open Group works with the manufacturer to get it fixed. If the manufacturer is unwilling, or if the problems are insurmountable, then the right to advertise compliance and use the compliance logo is retracted. In practice, extreme actions are rarely needed. If this process sounds familiar, it due to the similarity between it and the job that DCI compliance testing labs perform today, with CTP in hand but minus interaction with DCI.
Those familiar with my work may recall my involvement with Open Group back when DCI compliance testing was first being established. But the thinking presented here is not geared to resurrect an older effort. The value of self-test is now evident to other players in the industry.
If DCI is not needed to ensure compliance to its specification, then it may not be necessary for DCI to manage its specification. A different entity, having broader participation across the market, could do the job. It’s an important thought to explore, not because of a desire to get DCI out of the way, but because it’s important to carry DCI’s original mission into the worldwide marketplace where content distribution does not always originate in Hollywood. Broader participation in the specification process will be needed to ensure the longevity of the spec and buy-in from distributors around the world. This is not only important to preserve quality, but also to preserve the security of content worldwide, without which quality is meaningless.
If DCI is engaged in soul searching today, 10 years after first publishing its spec, it could be a good sign. The organization is a regular line item in every major studio budget, the good news, but the managers of those budgets must now be asking questions: DCI is a funded organization in search of something to do. Perhaps the best thing to do is to shift form. Now is the time, while the group is sharp and still with memory of how it came into being, to take a bold step and redefine the process for managing both its specification and compliance to its specification. The activities that DCI so well established must live long and prosper in a marketplace that will not always be Hollywood-centric.