Digital Cinema is not only a technology label which associates two words (or worlds!) apparently incompatible, but a process which will lead to a radical change in the modus operandi of the cinema industry.
The replacement of an end-to-end chain (from image capture to the final display on the large screen) based on a physical medium - 35 mm film - with a complete digital chain, in fact, not only optimises the economics of the distribution process, but also allows real time projections inside cinema theatres, thus opening the theatres to new, profitable opportunities of use. These major opportunities - which can get further value from the exploitation of satellite as transmission means - need in depth analyses and experimentations, on both the technological and business side, in order for the potentialities of this new system to be fully exploited in the Cinema environment.
So far, several trials have been conducted, and some preliminary initiatives are already in progress, but no real Digital Cinema operation, exploiting all the potentiality of this new technology, has occurred yet.
|Figure 1: Barco Cinestar DP50 DLP projector|
The E-Screen project matches the demand for a concrete step toward the operability of Digital Cinema. E-Screen sees the joint involvement of service providers, technology suppliers and, above all, of the Cinema industry, experimenting with the future business models and practices that will lead the transition toward Digital Cinema and addressing the technology areas that are involved in the implementation of a satellite based service chain.
E-Screen will be actually the first pan-European Satellite based Digital Cinema operation, including a real business deployment phase, named Theatre Pilot Service Phase, where projections open to paying public of a diversified range of digital contents delivered via satellite are performed.
|Figure 2: Panasonic PT-D9610U DLP projector|
Cinema players mostly believe that technology is there to ensure the fulfilment of the main parameters that determine a good image quality. However, several major issues are still open on the way to digital cinema, basically concerning the definition of widely recognised standards for compression and projection - the absence of which penalizes investment in digital equipment - and the high cost of theatre equipment (basically projectors and servers) is still a constraint for take-up of digital cinema.
Besides the above, there are a lot of uncertainties on what the business model for digital cinema will look like. Main concerns are related to the cost/benefit sharing between the different players, to the possible modification of balances and relationships in the cinema value chain, to the assessment and quantification of the effective benefits that will spring from the migration.
E-Screen, through providing practical evidence of a Digital Cinema pre-commercial operation, will address these issues with the aim of bringing new concrete elements to the migration process.
The main "advantage areas" pursued through the application of digital technologies in the cinema environment are the improvement of the economics (and operational flexibility) of the distribution process and the enhancement (and enrichment) of the theatre exploitation opportunities. E-Screen will enable a much better identification of the guidelines for the migration toward digital cinema, will help define the business models of the various players involved, will put the focus on the benefits of satellite exploitation and give operational evidence of the application of satellite multicasting technology to the cinema environment.
As an alternative to satellite, contents could be also distributed through physical delivery - as it is today for film - or via terrestrial broadband networks, which provide the bandwidth requirements necessary for Digital Cinema. However, terrestrial Digital Cinema distribution can in fact be performed only through a fibre optic link to the theatres, capable of ensuring the required bandwidth. Fibre coverage is currently quite poor and is developing at a slow pace, due to the high investment required for its deployment, while satellite coverage is already available to assure the establishment of a world-wide content distribution network.
Moreover, thanks to the multicasting technology, unitary cost of satellite transmission is decreasing along with the increase of the number of receiving sites. This is obviously not true for terrestrial means, nor obviously for physical delivery, the cost of which grows in direct proportion to the number of sites to be served. Satellite also enables screening of live events, just as with television, or could be used to download films off-line: this makes it by far the most flexible means for Digital Cinema delivery.
The E-Screen System Architecture is a complete network infrastructure for Satellite Digital Cinema, designed in the light of assuring reliability, integrity and scalability in service provisioning. The E-Screen network is able to deliver a/v compressed content regardless of the encoding/decoding and projection technologies utilised at theatre sites, in order to guarantee the interoperability with both presently available technologies and solutions to be developed in the next future.
The main drivers of the E-Screen System Architecture design have been inspired by the commitment to reach quality targets set by Cinema Industry in terms of:
- image quality (resolution, contrast, brightness and colour space)
- image integrity, through proper compression algorithms
- content safety during storage and transmission
The image quality and aspect typical of "traditional" cinema are guaranteed by using encoding/decoding techniques capable of processing digital video in SMPTE292M/24p format (i.e. 1920x1080 resolution at 24 frames per second). Currently available encoding/decoding algorithms can reach the above characteristics with an equivalent encoding bit rate in the range of 60880 MBit/s.
This means that a 2 hours uncompressed a/v digital (HD-SDI @ 1485 mbit/sec = 186 Mbytes/sec) content, with an original file size in the range of 1300 GB, can be compressed (using a HD-MPEG2 encoder @ 80 mbit/sec = 10 Mbytes/sec) into a file with a resulting size in the range of 70 GB. The platform provides encryption features, in order to guarantee a secure content transfer in both "store and forward" and "live" modes.
The scalable configuration of the network supports virtually unlimited future network expansion by simply adding new receiving sites.
The E-Screen network is made of a central hub transmitting the DVB transport stream and a community of remote receiving stations, to be installed in the selected cinemas. The central hub is located within Elsacom premises and is interfaced with an Elsacom proprietary up link earth station.
The E-Screen platform can be divided into the following macro blocks:
- E-Screen Service Center
- E-Screen Receiving Site
|Figure 3: E-Screen platform. Service Center|
|Figure 4: E-Screen platform. Receiving site block diagram|
The Theatre Pilot Service Phase will be conducted inside 10 theatres located in different EU countries (including Italy, Spain, U.K., Germany, Austria). This phase will last five months (2nd half of 2002) and is intended to be the bridge toward an operation to be conducted on a much larger scale. E-Screen foresees projections of both pre-recorded (motion pictures, short movies, advertising, educational, music, theatre etc.) and real-time (sports, music, conferencing, educational) contents. In this way, an "integrated" model of Cinema theatre will be experimented, assessing the economic value of an enhanced programming offer, inclusive of both entertainment and non-entertainment applications.
The economics of the new, satellite-based distribution model are assessed in the Strategic Plan, defining the "convenience thresholds", i.e. the critical masses of installed theatres and delivered contents that determine the convenience of shifting from the traditional distribution model to the new one based on satellite delivery.
With the Final Review held at ESTEC on 29 November 2005, the E-Screen project was finalized.
2005 has not only been the year of the E-Screen Pilot Phase, but also a key year for Digital Cinema: In July, the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) League officially issued the technical specifications for Digital Cinema. We can therefore say that Digital Cinema has moved out of the experimental stage and entered the operational stage, and we are seeing more and more new D-Cinema installations during 2006.
Partners are trying to exploit their experiences in keeping with their respective backgrounds:
- UCI is pursuing a massive D-Cinema roll-out in its Europe-wide theatres, and is studying a business model that can see the Exhibitor as a main feature in the migration process, unlike many other models which require third party interventions.
- Screen Digest has consolidated its reputation and position in the consulting market for audiovisual services, and still maintains its leadership in the Digital Cinema consultancy domain.
- Prime Contractor Elsacom is actively working on the roll-out of a regional network of "multi-purpose" screens, supported by the institutional body Regione Lazio of Italy. It is equipped with E and D-Cinema technologies and open to alternative programming also thanks to satellite receiving devices.
Elsacom is also exploiting its engineering and integrations experiences, achieved in the frame of E-Screen, for the development of a low-cost playout device. It is able to support all video formats and resolutions up to 2K, and encompasses an advertising and live event content management system. Starting from the "Regione Lazio" project, Elsacom would like to implement this product across the E-Cinema market, and other digital signage markets in Europe. Elsacom is therefore open to evaluating possible collaborations with other international projects, for developing further features and marketing the service/product across Europe.
E-Screen will remain a key stone for all Elsacom future activities in the Digital Cinema and other related fields.