Looking Sharp

In June 2004, Sony took the bold step to introduce to the cinema exhibition industry its first 4K projector, the SRX-R110. Unlike the majority of digital projectors being installed which used Texas Instruments’ 2K DLP Cinema technology, the Sony SRX-R110 projector used Sony’s own proprietary imaging device—known as SXRD. SXRD offered twice the horizontal and vertical pixel count of the 2K projectors. This in theory results in sharper pictures, which Sony and many others in the industry believe are ultimately necessary for movie theatres to differentiate themselves from consumer-level HD systems that now achieve near-2K resolution in the home.

While the SRX-R110 was possibly ahead of its time when demonstrated at industry events as an evolving prototype, it served the function of introducing 4K images and techniques to the industry and defining what features would be needed in Sony’s second-generation 4K cinema projectors. While most in the industry agree that the 4K projector can produce stunning images, its primary benefits are only relevant to exhibitors if there is a steady supply of 4K titles. The DCI specification elegantly accommodates 4K as a layer above 2K to allow single-inventory distribution, but creating 4K masters remains an industry challenge. Most Hollywood production processes are based on a 2K workflow and 4K adds a fairly significant time and cost bottleneck to the process.

“Sony is committed to streamlining the 4K workflow pipeline and is devoting considerable resources to developing the industry tools necessary to make quicker 4K production a reality in the next few years”, says Gary Johns, Sony’s VP in charge of its U.S. digital-cinema division. “Regarding titles and theatres, it’s the classic ‘chicken-and-egg’ dilemma. As we get more 4K theatres, we’ll see more 4K titles.” Sony demonstrated their ability to generate 4K content with the recently released Sony Pictures Hancock and Spider-Man 3 in 4K.

In the past four years, Sony has continued to refine its 4K cinema product line with new products, the latest being the SRX-R220 series, first shown at ShowEast in October 2006. While the earlier SRX-R110 was designed for a wide variety of uses, the newer SRX-R220 series was intended specifically for movie theatres and incorporated the security and DCI media block required to show Hollywood content.

In March 2007, Sony announced it had secured an arrangement with Muvico Theaters to equip its new 18-screen multiplex in Rosemont, Illinois, with the SXR-R220 projectors. As this was the supplier’s first multiplex-wide commitment, Sony worked closely with Muvico to ensure the Rosemont installations would be an ideal showcase for 4K and Sony’s other cinema-related products and services. The Muvico Rosemont installations were completed in the summer of 2007.

In early 2008, to facilitate the ongoing digital-cinema deployments, Sony created a new group based in Los Angeles, headed by Sony veteran Mike Fidler. The new Digital Cinema Services and Solutions Division (DCSS) plays an industry role similar to other third-party system integrators, in that they are providing initial system integration, after-sales service and support, as well as offering exhibitors attractive financing packages that will include studio conversion incentives. “The Sony DCSS group not only provides support for Sony’s 4K products but brings exhibitors solutions for pre-show advertising, lobby display, and offers a full-spectrum of Sony solutions,” says Fidler. “The Sony DCSS division also serves as a bridge between the Hollywood studios and Sony’s other worldwide sales divisions in providing conversion incentives for cinemas in the overseas markets.”

Last year, AMC Entertainment announced that they would be equipping 54 screens at four of their new sites with the Sony SXR-R220 projectors, and as of July 2008 AMC has installed 132 in North American cinemas. Overall, Sony has approximately 200 4K SXRD projectors installed in commercial cinemas worldwide. AMC, being a partner in the Digital Cinema Implementation Partners (DCIP) initiative, is therefore part of the rollout being planned for the DCIP partner companies, AMC, Regal and Cinemark. It is quite likely that as DCIP’s plans mature, AMC’s initial Sony 4K installations will be incorporated with the ongoing DCIP deployment.

Sony 3D
While Sony has been counting on 4K to be a significant differentiator, the market has turned to 3D, which produces instant and obvious results for the audience. The current 3D formats have been designed around the current DLP Cinema technology, where a single projector can fairly easily accommodate the increased frame rate 3D requires. With the SXRD devices, single-projector 3D using the conventional triple-flash solution is considerably more difficult to implement, so Sony’s engineering team has had to devise some unique and creative solutions.

The DCI specification supports 2D in 4K at 24 fps and in 2K at 48 fps. The current 3D system implements 3D within the DCI-specific package by interleaving the left-eye and right-eye channels into a 2K 48 fps package. Therefore, all current DCI 3D implementations are limited to 2K to meet the distribution package specification.

Sony views the DCI-imposed 2K limitation on 3D as an opportunity. Since they have a 4K-wide imaging device, they have cleverly devised a way to use its full height to display both the left-eye and right eye images full-time, in parallel, top-and-bottom on the SXRD display chips. In conjunction, they have developed a special dual-lens assembly that works with the SRX-R220 projector that repositions the two images into one 3D image at the screen.

Sony has been quietly working with both Real D as well as Dolby in developing the filters for their 3D adapter, with the objective of being able to offer solutions that accommodate both Real D’s circular polarized process and the Dolby-Infitec tri-filter process. Therefore, Sony’s 3D solution will be compatible with the existing 3D formats and glasses.

“With the addition of the 3D adaptor to our lineup, Sony can now offer the best of all worlds to exhibition: stunning 4K imagery from 4K movies; incredible 3D, with no triple-flash artifacts; and upscaled 2K movies,” Gary Johns asserts.

At Cinema Expo in Amsterdam, Sony was privately demonstrating their 3D adapter for the SRX-R220 projector to key exhibitors, and the company plans to have a demonstration system installed in Los Angeles in the near future. And, of course, look for the Sony 3D-enabled projector at ShowEast 2008.

By Bill Mead, Film Journal International