The HD/Display/Projection Race Heats Up

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Id just arrived at the show in Vegas. Again. But why did I have to keep looking at my own badge to remind myself what show this is?

Its April in Las Vegas, so it could only be NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters show. But 2005 is evolving oddly, and I have the feeling Ill be in acute existential anxiety all year, as I try to remember which vertical market is which, sort out the contenders in this odd race, and bet on winners.

First things first. In January, this city served up CES (Consumer Electronics Show), and the question: is CES a consumer show? Out of 120K plus in attendance, the production/pro AV/staging contingent at CES is big and growing. Ten or twenty percent of a buck twenty is a lot of industry eyes, and none of those eyes missed the writing on the wall at CES: the consumer horse would lead the race 05, as flat panel market dynamics continued an inexorable domination of the supply-side economy of our industry: rumblings from the east as the display production lines for cell phones and computer monitors and televisions began creating an economy of scale that tipped the marketing dynamics of everything from plasma to cinema projectors to post production.

The conventional wisdom at the end of 04 was that digital cinema was in something of a sleep mode, with SMPTE still trying to hammer out specs. But is it? ShoWest in Vegas (March) came with some interesting newsmainly on the production side, but also on the display side. Is digital cinema (ShoWest is the National Association of Theater Owners show) really about cinema, or is it about a clash of titans (read Sony and Texas Instruments) over the real prize: content (Sony) and display (TI) real estate in the living room? And will the pursuit of that prize drive product development on the pro side until a clear winner emerges?

NAB was in full swing this week, and sandwiched as it is in the middle of a long run of video/production/cinema/post/display events that is CES/ShoWest/NAB/InfoComm, even the most jaded reporter can see some interesting trends as the horses bunch up and ease out and then bunch up again, trends that transcend the perennial hype that HD and the all-digital production-distribution-display stream is just around the next bend.
As the nations TV stations make the transition to digital, as HDTV continues its upward momentum and the price of HDTVs continue to fall, the broadcast world, after several lean years of consolidation, is starting to pay some dividends in terms of cross-market technology development that could throw forward some winners.

At Sonys press conference last Sunday afternoon at NAB, HD production cameras got top billing, but the fact that all the production clips were shown on a Sony SXRD, 4K resolution projector made the press conference curiouser and curiouser as Sony execs from myriad divisionsled by John Scarcella, president of Sony Electronics' Broadcast and Business Solutions Companymade their presentations.
Sony did manage to squeeze some more mileage Sunday out of the March announcement that Landmark cinemas, co-owned by the nations most ardent HD-phile Mark Cuban, will outfit the movie chains properties with Sonys new digital, 4K resolution, SXRD projectors. According to Sony, Landmark will begin its digital cinema rollout this summer with six SXRD projectors, and plans to fully enable all of its 59 theaters (covering 22 markets) for digital projection, eventually.

But the kicker at the Sony press conference was a clip played on the SXRD projector to close out the event. Julie Andrews in all her alpine splendor singing Do Re Mifrom The Sound of Music, in four thousand line resolution. Splendid indeed. For all those who saw the Sony projector at InfoComm last year, or ShoWest, well, it just keeps getting more impressive. (I would love to report that those pristine images were fed by a Doremi server, but it was a DVS Clipster server that served up the 4K.)
Yes I was impressed by the stunning detail, the profound black levels of Sonys CineAlta technology at their NAB press event. It was not a huge screen, and there was a sizeable distance between screen and audience. Jaded journalists in audience were heard to comment at that distance, who could tell the difference between 2K and 4K? But it doesnt take ASC golden eyes to see the breathtaking detail of four thousand lines of resolution. Who can look at a feature film shot on 35 and printed to 70mm, and say: the difference between that and 35mm is negligible? And 35mm itself resolves more that 4K, quite a bit more (but I dont hear anyone saying 16mm is enough resolution for feature presentation).

Is Sony serious about giving Texas Instruments DLP a run for its cinema money? Beautiful images from one projector at the trade show demo do not add up to a market contender. But this year will be different.

DLP has been around longer, and TI is experiencing the fastest-horse-out-of-the-gate syndrome. TI worked hard to make 2K resolution look great. And the market and the distribution systems in place had no room for anything more. TI will probably eventually go to a higher-res DMD chip, but at this point, the Hollywood studios are not releasing their catalogs in 2K, much less 4K, so TI is right to point out that at this juncture in the market, and with SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) still debating how many angels can fit on the head of the digital pin (they continued the debate on the Digital Cinema System spec in a two-day digital cinema summit here Saturday and Sunday), 2K vs. 4K is definitely not the limiting factor in the cinema chain.
What will drive the players this year? Thats easy? The race for domination of the production workflow, and the race for the living room display.

Sony has taken the production road, to arrive at display. Sony is established as a major contender in image capture and editing. And Sonys latest CineAlta technology is at the forefront of motion picture production that is foregoing film capture in favor of 24P digital. (Recent digital releases that have taken advantage of Sony latest generation digital cinematography technology include Michael Mann's "Collateral," Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City" and the soon-to-be released "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.")

And dont forget, Sony owns content. Literally. Sony Pictures is a major Hollywood force, and its catalog could be the first out in digital.

TI is coming from the opposite direction. Yes, it staked out the commercial cinema screen as its first target (to replace the 35mm film projector with a digital projector), but then poured huge resources into the race for personal television real estate, and has won significant market share in the Microdisplay category.

On the eve of NAB, Apr. 11,Texas Instruments, announced that its 1920 x 1080 high-definition DLP TV technology has been fully qualified and is in production shipment to customers. DLP TVs are expected to be the first volume 1080p TVs available on the U.S. market, with affordable 1080p DLP TVs scheduled to be at retail as early as July. According to In-Stat, there are currently 4 million HDTV households in the US, up from 1.6 million in March 2004. Many HD cable and network programming offerings have already moved to 1080 resolution, and the highly anticipated HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc technologies for high-definition video playback are expected to make their debut later this year.

Meanwhile, TIs DLP Cinema technology is out there in the post and cinema worldcinema projectors especially in overseas markets where U.S. anti-trust laws prohibiting joint ownership of production, distribution and movie exhibition channels are weak or nonexistent and is gathering market share.

Yes, this race has been developing down the backstretch for a while, and theres no neck and neck at this stage. But someone is going to make a move.

You dont have to be at CES, or ShoWest, or NAB to see it. As dazzling as it is, take your eye off that big screen. The race is right in front of you. Whether youre on location, sitting at a post desk, or watching TV, just look more closely at whatever screens in front of your own nose.

(Note: Gary Mandle of Sander Phipps, will conduct a manufacturers training presentation on Sonys new 4K resolution SXRD large venue projectors for all experience levels, at InfoComm, June 8th, with discussions on the installation, operation, and sourcing for the new Sony series of 4K displays.

Dozens of Texas Instruments DLP partners will be exhibiting at InfoComm, including TIs DLP Cinema partners Barco, Christie, and Digital Projection. More information is on the www.infocommshow.org website, or call ICIA at 1.800.659.7469.)

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