Is the Giant-Screen Market a Boon for Immersive Video Integrators?

Integrators who specialize in immersive video solutions may find market opportunity in digital projection for clients with giant-screen applications.

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Is the Giant-Screen Market a Boon for Immersive Video Integrators?

In 1927, French director Abel Gance’s sweeping epic Napoleon was projected onto three separate screens simultaneously, a tricky feat that was rarely attempted in the era before reliable synchronization. In the 1950s, Hollywood embraced Cinerama and CinemaScope, 35mm and 70mm formats, respectively, that while visually impressive, were difficult and costly to install in theaters. But these early experiments in widescreen projection reflected sustained interest by moviegoers in wanting to go big.

Then came IMAX. The Canadian company’s first permanent installation, in Ontario in 1974, had a screen that measured 89 x 66 feet, a scale still stunning even today. It was arguably the beginning of immersive media, and IMAX quickly became the dominant player in what would come to be known as the giant-screen cinema business.

IMAX has remained the leading format in that prosaically named sector, focusing on specialty films made for the format. But as it moved into having key Hollywood movies reformatted for its unique (and expensive) system starting in the 1990s, the institutional cinema sector — museums, planetariums, aquariums — that had been IMAX’s meat and potatoes were turning to bigger and bigger screens to differentiate themselves as that market began to mushroom and become more competitive.

There were more than 35,000 museums in the U.S. alone, the Washington Post reported in 2014 — more than the number of Starbucks and McDonald’s locations combined — a doubling of their numbers since the 1990s, while a Barco spokesperson estimates that about 100 new museums and cultural centers open each day globally.

Those institutional users sought the allure of big screen content but found IMAX’s costs — including content royalties (each film print costs in the neighborhood of $28,000 each, with shipping costs of about $400 per print), rental fees for the format’s proprietary projection systems, and the cost of an operator to run and manage the system — difficult to absorb on institutional budgets. Along with the arrival of digital projection, that’s created a small but significant window of opportunity for the professional AV integration industry to capitalize on immersive video needs.

Immersive Video Content First

On the content side, production companies have moved to create giant-screen and 3D productions geared to museum demographics, which lean heavily toward families. These programs, which generally run between four and 14 minutes for introductory shorts and up to 45 minutes for feature presentations, are intended to introduce visitors to a museum or a new exhibit, but to do so with the impact that comes with a huge, immersive presentation.

Janine Stafford Baker, SVP distribution & development at nWave Pictures, one of the most prolific producers and distributors of 3D shows for the museum and entertainment markets, says the advent of digital projection changed the landscape for institutional users.

“IMAX once held a monopoly in the format, but when [projection] went digital, things changed,” she says. “Museums and planetariums have to compete more for audience dollars now, and digital projection systems offer them a less expensive way into the big-screen market. It’s disrupted the market.”

One example of that disruption is found at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., where the 325-seat Naval Aviation Memorial Giant Screen Theater shows custom productions such as The Magic of Flight, a film tracing the history of aviation and highlights the teamwork of the Blue Angels, the U.S Navy’s acrobatic flight team.

“We’re providing a combination of digital projection technologies, which these cinemas can own versus license, and that usually allows them to achieve ROI within two years.”

Two years ago, the museum transitioned from the IMAX system it had been using, which looked great but which also cost in the low six figures annually to lease, operate and maintain.

In its place, digital projection specialist D3D Cinema installed a laser-based projector that produced a giant-screen effect at a fraction of the cost, mainly by eliminating systems lease costs (the laser-based projector was purchased outright) and through the elimination of lamp-replacement and other consumables costs, and of operators’ salaries, since the system is able to be highly automated.

“[The National Naval Aviation Museum’s] experience is not uncommon when it comes to the economics of small- and mid-sized institutional giant-screen users,” observes Derek Threinen, vice president, Film Distribution and Business Development at Giant Screen Films/D3D Cinema, a Chicago-based integrator whose sister company, large format cinema content developer Giant Screen Films, also develops content for the format.

“We’re providing a combination of digital projection technologies, which these cinemas can own versus license, and that usually allows them to achieve ROI within two years.”

Baker says more institutional clients are opting to have local AV systems integrators design and install large-format screens, both to get into the game and to keep costs down.

However, she acknowledges that there are a limited number of component providers in the market — Christie, Barco, Sony and Digital Projection are among the leaders in commercial projection market share in general, to name a few — and that not every integrator has all of the necessary competencies to execute a true giant-screen experience.

Barco has a palpable lead in the giant-screen projection business: the Belgium-based company provides the laser technology for IMAX’s GT Laser Cinema system, introduced in 2015, and has been packaging some installations with its IOSONO object-based multichannel audio system.

Peter Pauwels, Barco’s director of strategic marketing for pro AV, says installing and integrating giant-screen systems remains largely a highly specialized proposition, limited to a few integrators, including Electrosonic, Kraftwerk Living Technologies, Whitlock and AVI-SPL, whose work extends into theme parks and other venues that also use very large projection screens.

However, he believes that’s changing.

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“The most difficult part is the system design,” he explains. “They need the proper expertise — the screens are either curved or domes, and they have to be trained for safety with lasers. But a competent AV integrator with those skills can follow that design and do the installation,” including properly aligning as many as six or seven projectors and a synchronized immersive video and audio system.

Pauwels says that many cultural and theme park installations in Asia are now routinely designed by major integration firms but executed by local integrators. “And more museums are bringing on more highly trained staff, too,” he adds. A trend toward fewer, brighter projectors will also make systems integration less complicated.

Giant-Screen Standards in Place

The giant-screen sector has had formal standards in place since 2011, when the National Science Foundation funded Digital Immersive Giant Screen Specifications (DIGSS 1.0) was introduced. Stakeholders at the time included the Giant Screen Cinema Association (GSCA) and the Institute for Learning Innovation.

DIGSS’ purpose is to recommend audio and immersive video system specifications to both system vendors and theaters, so that they can create the most effective giant-screen experience for their audiences, explains Michael Daut, GSCA board member and the co-chair of the Technical Committee.

“DIGSS provides helpful technical guidelines that, if followed by all parties, ensure a quality audio and visual presentation in a giant digital flat screen and giant digital dome theater.”

Daut says that DIGSS is continually reviewed and revised by the Technical Committee of the GSCA; its most recent iteration, DIGGS 1.2, was released in September 2015 and included changes to the sections on dome resolution, 3D peak white luminance, narrow angle luminance uniformity, 3D ghosting, and audio channels.

Immersive Video…But Big Sound, Too

Giant-screen projection is expanding at a time when immersive audio formats are also gaining traction in professional AV.

IMAX had developed its own proprietary audio format, referred to as 6.0, which originally used three CDs, each with a pair of stereo tracks, started simultaneously and played through full range speakers, to eliminate the need for a separate subwoofer (.1) channel. When DVD became available in the late 1990s, IMAX was able to put all six tracks on a single disc, known as the DTAC format, which greatly reduced the potential for synchronization problems.

The 6.0 format’s speakers utilized a conventional LCR (left, center, right) array across the front, with three rear surround speakers and one above the center speaker, which gave the sound mixer some ability to create a sense of height. With the arrival of immersive audio formats such as Dolby’s Atmos and Barco’s Auro 3D, IMAX continued to go its own way.

It developed a 12-channel format whose tracks reside on hard drives, with the additional six tracks showing up in two new speakers on the sides, and four on the ceiling in a grid covering the front and back of the seating area. The 12-channel audio system (named 12.0) is designed for use only with IMAX’s laser-fired projection systems; the conventionally lit IMAX projectors continue to use the 6.0 system.

Dolby and Christie began a collaboration in 2014 in which the projection systems maker would co-develop, supply, install, and service proprietary Dolby Vision projection systems for Dolby Cinema installations. Dolby Cinema incorporates Dolby Vision, which uses advanced optics and image processing to deliver high dynamic range (HDR) with enhanced color technology, via two high frame rate-capable Christie 4K laser projection heads, combined with its 6P laserlight sources.

Doug Darrow, senior vice president, Cinema Business Group at Dolby Laboratories, said in an email that there are “over 100 Dolby Cinema locations deployed globally,” 75 of which are in the U.S. However, most are in AMC theaters.

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IMAX had to switch formats to continue to be a competitive provider of immersive video solutions.

He added that the Atmos format has also been deployed in some museums and aquariums that use a 70-foot plus screen size, “but this is primarily used to show Hollywood features when alternative educational content isn’t being shown.”

Brian Eimer, senior sound designer and president of ImagesInSound, an Ontario post production facility, says the arrival of new sound formats can only help drive the development of large screen alternatives for the institutional and other markets, by providing non-exclusive sound systems that can be applied to any immersive video format.

“The new audio formats give sound designers a tool that’s an audio counterpart to 3D immersive video,” he says. “It lets you wrap the audience up and take them somewhere they’ve never been before.”

Eimer, who has mixed for large format films, including IMAX, and whose facility is certified for Atmos and IMAX Immersive 12.0 audio formats (last February, Sony Pictures Post Production Services opened a new mix stage dedicated exclusively to IMAX 12.0 work), says the nature of museum and institutional films actually offers sound mixers more freedom than many Hollywood blockbusters.

“These are 40- or 45-minute-long movies that have to pack a lot in during that time, so we’ll get to move the sound around quite a bit and use all of those twelve to fourteen speakers depending on which formats we’re working with.”

And Atmos can scale itself — the format’s DSP will automatically deploy tracks over whatever number of speakers, from seven to 11 to 14 and up to a maximum of 128, depending on the number of subs — which lets the format be used in a greater variety of venues.

That flexibility can be a double edged sword, saddling venues with the same issues that many home theaters had early on: imperfect speaker alignment and tuning over a multiplanar audio array. Not every AV integrator can properly do these kinds of installations, says Eimer, who has stories of his own mixes being distorted by improperly installed or aligned speaker arrays.

It’s annoying and then some, especially when end users tend to blame the mix instead of the playback installation, he says. Also, he notes that the DIGSS standards were largely established before the arrival of these new audio formats. But, he says, it’s part of the growing pains of an immersive video sector that’s taking off as museums continue to open at a fast pace.

“Big screens and immersive audio are a way for these museums to differentiate themselves,” he says. “It’s all about creating the best experience possible, and using that to create the buzz.”

Digital Projection: A Generational Gap

The transition to digital projection and immersive video may inject the large screen sector with a needed jumpstart, says James Hyder, editor and publisher of the LF Examiner, an online trade publication that covers the large format industry.

While there may be more museums and planetariums than ever before, his research suggests that interest in their projection aspects might be dropping off.

“The youngest generations grew up on large screens; it’s no longer cutting-edge to them,” he says of the middle school audiences and their parents that are the bread and butter of museum demographics.

Hyder hopes that the shift to digital projection, which opens the field to more producers, will spark creative innovation in content that pulls people in. It seems to have inspired IMAX, which announced earlier this year that its long-awaited laser dome system will be delivered starting in September 2018.

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In addition, this new next-generation system from IMAX — which did not respond to queries from Commercial Integrator — will utilize a single projector, located in the “doghouse” position in the center of the seating deck, a change from the configuration originally proposed of two projectors in the rear gallery.

The IMAX experience is still the superior one for giant screens, says Hayden, but the shift to digital projection has “leveled the playing field,” he says, including for the integrators who could install these systems. “For those museums that can afford immersive video and can accommodate giant screens, they’ll now have more options than ever before.”

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