The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from. An old observation often attributed to either Grace Hopper or Andrew Tanenbaum, dating back to the early 80’s. It points to the many methods that find their way into formal documentation for accomplishing a given task. But today we have a somewhat different problem in cinema. In recent years, a lot of methods were standardized that have yet to find their way into the marketplace.
Performing a search on the SMPTE site reveals that there are some 54 standards and recommended practices for digital cinema. 26 of those standards were created before 2009, of which at least 24 are fully in use, about 92%. That’s a tribute to the success of a very focused and well-managed digital cinema standards effort, in which the DCI specification backed by virtual print fees played a major role. 2009 and upward, about 25 cinema standards and recommended practices have been published, of which only 14 are fully in use, or 56%. There has been a significant drop in effectiveness following 2009, at a time when one might have expected the standards effort to become sharper.
No surprise, a fair part of the effectiveness problem is SMPTE DCP. Certain documents, such as ST 429-16 Additional Composition Metadata and Guidelines, could be in much wider use if also applied to Interop. Audio related standards probably fare the worst. For example, revisions have led to least three ways to package 5.1 audio in SMPTE DCP, which does not help adoption. Certainly, mistakes will be made. But without recognition, mistakes will tend to repeat, and cinema standards are on track to do just that.
Cinema is a small industry, for which high technology standards are a new phenomenon. To get a sense of its smallness, the total market of 130,000 to 140,000 cinema screens around the world is less in quantity than the number of iPhones sold in one hour when a new model is introduced. Pre-digital, cinema standards dictated matters no more complex than the dimensions and placement of sprocket holes in film, and guidance as to how to setup sound and light in an auditorium. The development of standards for the digital cinema rollout was relatively straight forward, with manufacturers standing in line to benefit from studio equipment subsidies. But post-rollout standards development has proven to be anything but straight forward, for several reasons.
There is an ever-widening gap between those who create the standards, and those who use them. Standards are created to solve problems, but solutions cannot be implemented unless equipment is updated or changed. So unless the problems being solved directly benefit the owner of the equipment, they’re unlikely to be implemented. In such an environment, improvements at the distribution level need to be rolled in so that older equipment responds as it normally would, and more capable equipment can receive it. At a macro level, digital cinema was architected to do this. If a system doesn’t recognize a file, it should ignore it. But we’re finding that we also need this capability at a micro level, which is not what digital cinema was architected to do. The system needs to do more than ignore unrecognized information: it needs to continue to behave in the manner the user is accustomed to. The gap widens because there is a tendency to blame users for not updating systems, rather than fix inadequately architected standards that cannot gracefully roll-in new features.
New standards are also challenged when leaps in technology are introduced. Because of the smallness of the cinema market, one manufacturer can easily dominate, and dominant manufacturers do not need standards. In the case of immersive sound, Dolby did not introduce Atmos with the intent to share it with competitors. Dolby was certainly not alone in keeping its technology proprietary, but as a dominant player, its actions have significant impact on the market. A standards effort has been underway for 2 years to introduce uniformity in immersive sound distributions, but the investments in disparate object-based sound technologies have already been made. Asking the owners of these technologies, namely, Dolby and DTS, to toss their existing investments and re-invest in a new committee-driven standard, without compensation, doesn’t appear to be the road to happiness.
Innovation in cinema will not stop with immersive sound. High dynamic range is on the horizon, and the projection and display technologies that will deliver this to cinemas have yet to mature. DCI would like to step ahead of the development curve so as to prevent the emergence of multiple methods for HDR as happened with immersive sound. The concept is good. The approach however, may need tuning. DCI tends to operate under a cloak of secrecy, sending a puff of smoke up the chimney to signal its latest dictum on its website. This can result in protests from technology developers that may feel disadvantaged. DCI encountered such protests in response to its unexpected and unprecedented requirement last year to carry the forensic identifier for outboard immersive sound processors in the KDM, which would have led to the modification of Dolby Atmos equipment in the field. Admitting defeat, DCI redacted its forensic identifier requirement for outboard media blocks this month.
The most successful standards in digital cinema were created after several years of exploratory study effort. Looking back, it may appear to have been an extravagant effort. Certainly, no one is proposing similar steps today, although perhaps this should be revisited. Instead, manufacturers now fully fund their own efforts, and once invested, are not keen to toss out their prized work in favor of the unfunded product of a standards committee. DCI’s secretive approach to stabilizing technology is unreliable. It can, and has, backfired. If new successful standards are to emerge in the post rollout era, the industry will need to rethink its approach.