3D Screen Installs Gaining Critical Mass

Recently, I have been hearing all kinds of conflicting numbers as to how many 3D screens there are out there for theatrical exhibition. So I decided to try to find a better answer myself by contacting a number of key players involved in rolling out 3D cinema screens worldwide. I was surprised at the larger-then-expected number of 3D screens out there for first run movies (about 6,500). Here’s a rundown of what I learned.

XpanD, which uses an active shutter glasses approach and a conventional screen, reports about 1,100 3D screens installed today. About 90% of all of the 3D screens in Asia use the XpanD system, says Ami Dror. In this region, XpanD has a distribution agreement with Singapore-based server manufacturer GDC Technology to incorporate their 3D systems into the growing base of digital systems in Mainland China.

For Europe, Dror estimates their market share is probably about 50% (~600 screens). Real D has about 250, Dolby about 200 and MasterImage perhaps 50, said Dror. By October, Dror estimates perhaps 1,500 total XpanD 3D screens. The roll out is currently limited by production of active glasses to equip these theaters.

MasterImage uses a rotating polarizer wheel that it places in front of the DLP cinema projector along with a polarization-preserving screen and passive polarized glasses. Spokesman Paul Panabaker told us the company is "well over the 300 3D screen mark, with perhaps 40% of those installs in North America.

Dolby modifies the Digital Cinema projector to install a rotating color wheel that has a special narrowband RGB filter set. Each filter set is slightly offset to allow separation of the left and right eye images, which are visible by a user wearing matched filter glasses. This approach allows the use of a conventional screen. As of July 2009, Dolby had over 1000 Dolby 3D screens installed globally with over 350 installed in North America. However, the company has also shipped an additional 500 systems that are in the process of being installed now. Dolby’s strategy is to focus on small- and mid-sized exhibitor organizations, independent cinemas and specialty screening rooms.

Real D dominates the 3D screen market with over 3,200 installs as of the end of July. Real D uses an electro-optic polarization rotator placed in front of the projection lens of the DLP projector, a polarization-preserving screen and passive polarized glasses. According to Rick Heineman, Real D accounts for over 90% of the 3D screens in North America. It has a total of 8,700 3D screens under contract, so expect the installed base to grow significantly. Europe has been a particularly active market for Real D, with sales reportedly up 400% since the opening of their London office in February 2009.

Sony’s approach to 3D is based on their 4K projection system. To achieve 3D, a complex optical assembly is placed in front of the standard projection lens of the 4K projector. Two images representing left and right eye images are formatted in an above/below configuration on the 4K imagers. These are then optically combined and overlaid, with orthogonal circular polarization states. This 3D approach requires a polarization-preserving screen and passive polarized glasses.

Sony reports that they currently have over 500 4K screens worldwide, and expect this to reach about 1,000 by year’s end. Prior agreements with AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group to install Sony 4K systems across their entire circuits over the next three years means Sony has a backlog of at least 11,000 screens.

How many of these 4K screens will be 3D capable, too? Probably 50% is a good number to use for now, so let’s say 500 by the end of the year. Sony didn’t say how this is distributed geographically, but it seems likely the vast majority will be in North America. But there is some action in Europe. In Germany, for example, Sony just reported that the best-known multiplex cinema operator, CinemaxX Group, plans to equip 56 of its cinemas with new 3D versions of its CineAlta 4K digital cinema projector by this November.

IMAX’ approach to 3D is a dual projection system. These two projectors are aligned to overlay each other, with orthogonal polarizers placed over the projection lens of each projector. This also requires a polarization-preserving screen and passive polarized glasses to separate the two images at the eyes. Classic or original IMAX screens are the largest format and many still use film-based projectors — even for 3D. The newer screens are located in multiplexes and still offer a larger format screen and improved sound system, but the screens are not as large as the classic theaters. These new venues are all digital, too, featuring twin DLP projectors.

According to IMAX spokesperson, Jessica Boyer, as of June 30, 2009, there were 284 3D IMAX theaters worldwide, with 102 of these being digital versions. Of the 284, 189 are located in North America, 36 in Europe and 31 in Asia, with another 28 spread around other regions. An additional 100 IMAX sites exist worldwide, but these do not support 3D. The backlog for IMAX is 170 screens and these are going in at the rate of about one screen per week.

These installation numbers are changing daily. The table below is a rough summary of what should be available as of the end of August 2009 using the various systems. Not included are data from some of the newer and emerging markets like Latin America, Australia, Russia and Eastern Europe, where almost 100% of all digital installations are 3D. These numbers are small now, but growing rapidly.

By Chris Chinnock, Display Daily