SMPTE's Digital Cinema Committee Takes Off Running

by Michael Karagosian
©2000 MKPE Consulting  All rights reserved worldwide
Published in the February 2000 NAB film supplement from SCN

On January 19, 2000, the first open meetings of SMPTE's DC28 Digital Cinema Technology Committee were held in Los Angeles. It's no surprise that the committee has proven to be popular, now with approximately 125 members. DC28 is divided into seven study groups whose scopes match their titles, namely, Mastering, Compression, Conditional Access, Transport and Delivery, Audio, Theatre Systems, and Projection. The term "study group" is well chosen. The purpose of these groups is to uncover and discuss the many issues that face the full deployment of digital cinema (DC). At this time, they are not authorized to create standards. However, the DC28 Technology Committee is chartered to produce Engineering Guidelines, Recommended Practices, and/or Standards for digital cinema in due course.

There are many challenges that DC28 faces. Not the least of which is maintaining a leadership role in an industry that is still being born. DC28's job would be much easier if it only had to evaluate existing systems. While digital cinema trial systems have been actively deployed in America and Europe, these systems are not suitable for consideration for standards. They either serve as a proving ground for projection technologies or provide a method for exhibiting content other than highly valued first-run movies. This makes "design by committee" a big temptation to this engineer-driven group. At the worst, DC28 has the potential for creating another ATSC A/53, with it's myriad of digital television formats. But this is unlikely. At it's best, DC28 will become the pillar for a healthy equipment industry by defining how components will plug and play in digital cinema. To lead it in this direction, the Committee enjoys strong guidance from Chairman Curt Behlmer, Senior VP of Technology for Soundelux Entertainment Group, and Vice-Chairman Bob Rast, VP of Electronic Media for Dolby Laboratories. The Committee also benefits from the oversight of SMPTE Motion Picture Engineering Director Ioan Allen, also VP of Dolby Laboratories and the man most responsible for making multi-channel sound popular in cinemas today.

A more subtle challenge facing DC28 is the need to rely upon affordable technology without compromising future DC systems. In the consumer world, the advent of a new television standard or new form of distributed media warrants significant investment, since the payback for a popular technology can be enormous. But cinema offers a very limited market. Across the entire US, there are approximately 35,000 cinema screens, meaning even a highly successful product with 70% penetration might only enjoy sales of 25,000 units, probably over a 10 year period. By no means a large enough number to warrant the development of custom integrated circuits. This has to be a high technology system without high technology parts.

To the benefit of the committee, technology continues to evolve. In late February, the DVI 1.0 specification was approved, describing a high speed data link for display technologies. Intel also announced its HDCP encryption technology for DVI, first implemented in integrated form by Silicon Image, allowing for the secure transmission of image data to display devices. The single-link DVI specification is limited to data clock speeds of 165MHz or less. But the DVI specification is also forward-looking, and identifies a future dual-link method for transporting image data rates up to 330 MHz. Add HDCP to secure the data, and we hopefully have a ready-made technology for digital cinema.

Having participated in a majority of the meetings, I have to say that this is a committee with a mission. These groups have been meeting frequently, some every few weeks, to keep the discussions progressing at a healthy clip. While most meetings tend to take place in the Los Angeles area, some groups have scheduled meetings in Silicon Valley and New Jersey, inviting a wider range of participants. As a vehicle for exploring the issues that lie ahead for digital cinema, the groups have proven themselves successful. If you're planning to attend, beware! The frequency of these meetings and the support required inbetween will likely impose a significant impact on your schedule.

The most challenging aspect of DC28 is its reason for being. To the well-funded digital communications world, financing digital cinema looks like a good move to secure the right to sell content and advertising. But the thought that an outsider might define the future of cinema doesn't sit well within the Hollywood community, which has long guarded cinema as its premier venue. It's hard to imagine today, but even Dolby Laboratories, a stranger to Hollywood 25 years ago, had a few mountains to climb in their effort to gain Hollywood acceptance. SMPTE, with support from NATO (not the guys with the war planes, but the National Association of Theatre Owners) and the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), has in part established DC28 as a countermeasure to outside influence. This committee is indeed on a mission, that being to define digital cinema to the likes of Hollywood. Not Mission Impossible, but certainly a mission with a challenge.