Pioneering or Pie-In-The-Sky?

by Michael Karagosian
©2001 MKPE Consulting All rights reserved worldwide
Published in the January 2001 issue of In Focus Magazine, a NATO publication

If you follow the headlines that occasionally make their impression on our business psyche, electronic delivery of movies is coming, and demonstration upon demonstration is attempting to prove that it's here and ready to roll. Over the past year, we've seen well-advertised demonstrations of electronic movie delivery. Last November brought us the satellite transmission of "Bounce", and before that in June, the Internet transmission of "Titan AE". Let's take a close look at what was demonstrated.

The prototype digital cinema system in use today utilizes a QuBit digital storage and playback unit from QuVis, and a DLP Cinema digital projector from Texas Instruments. The QuBit device can receive data in a variety of ways, including an Ethernet port, allowing for a direct network connection. The recent transmission of "Bounce" was hailed as the first digital satellite transfer of a first-run movie. Firsts were also claimed for "Titan AE". Let's take a look at what really took place.

"Bounce" was first recorded onto two QuBit units in Los Angeles. These QuBit units served two important functions, compressing the movie data while preparing it for digital transmission, and providing convenient storage. Once loaded with the movie, the units were flown from Los Angeles to the satellite uplink station in Tulsa. There, the QuBit data was transmitted over both satellite and fiber network, with both signals retrieved by cache storage located at the Empire theatre New York. "Bounce" occupies around 50GB of storage space, and even at the 45Mb/sec data rate supported by the satellite system, takes 3 or 4 hours to transfer. (There were several data transfers which took place along the way, of which the total transfer time was in the range of 10-12 hours, as quoted in some press releases.) At the theatre, the data was transferred from cache to local QuBit unit for presentation to the audience.

Back in March of 2000, a different type of digital transmission between distributor and theatre was demonstrated, where only land-based networks were used. The movie file for "Titan AE" was sent from Los Angeles to Atlanta by means of the Internet. Have you ever downloaded a file off of the internet, or used FTP (file transfer protocol) to move data between internet-linked computers? FTP was the technology used for delivering "Titan AE", an internationally available method for transferring digital files. The only notable effort was the secure path that was created over the internet for this transmission.

To someone familiar with either telecommunications or the Internet, none of this sounds like rocket science. And of course, they could have put more fuel in the plane and flown the original QuBit units containing "Bounce" directly to New York. But that wouldn't have demonstrated much. It wasn't the fact that a digital file was transferred. In each case, it was the security that was provided and robustness of the transfer that was the point.

These demonstrations are good for the industry. They set the stage for the future, and they illustrate the problems to be solved before wide-scale digital delivery of content is possible. In each of the demonstrations, a dedicated channel to the theatre was created leading from a single distribution server. Each demonstration was accompanied with words similar in effect to saying that the single transmission could have been received by thousands of theatres, the "one-to-many" model. But is this really the case? In a true business environment, multiple vendors would have access to each theatre, upsetting the one-to-many model for electronic distribution. Scheduling conflicts and error generation will likely require something closer to a many-to-many model. Questions have to be answered such as how failed transmissions are dealt with and how to ensure that each theatre opens with the new release on time. To add another wrinkle, some form of streaming entertainment (broadcast-style entertainment) should be available as well, and that mechanism has yet to be demonstrated publicly.

What do these demonstrations really prove? Quite simply, they bring to the surface the many challenges to be solved in making electronic delivery work. These challenges include the method in which the data is prepared for distribution, the security of the distribution method, the manner in which different kinds of transmission are handled (file-based movies and streaming entertainment), and the way in which data is received and distributed within the theatre. The safest statement to make is that the real infrastructure required for wide-scale electronic distribution of cinema entertainment has yet to be fully demonstrated. While some could call this pie-in-the-sky thinking, there is definitely a pioneering effort underway.