PPV of the future?

Digital cinema holds possibilities beyond opening night

If a team of content and technology companies has its way, satellite transmission and advanced encryption will be used to deliver not only movies but also sporting events, concerts and news to theaters equipped with the latest digital-projection technology.

A demonstration at AMC Empire 25 Theaters in New York's Times Square last week featured
, a Miramax Films production starring Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow. Affleck and Miramax Los Angles President Mark Gill were on hand to describe how the digital satellite delivery of movies can revolutionize theatrical distribution while improving image quality on the big screen. But Gill and executives from Boeing, AMC Theatres, Disney, Texas Instruments, QuVis, Williams Vyvx and EnergyDigital predicted that the technology will also be used for live pay-per-view broadcasts of sporting events and concerts, news programming and in-theater sales and marketing presentations.

Digital cinema's ability to easily mass-distribute movies to theaters could create additional pay-per-view windows for theatrical releases, Gill said. Frank Rash, AMC Entertainment vice president of strategic development and marketing, added that AMC has already used digital cinema projection technology to display concerts and boxing matches, to successful response.

Bob Lambert, senior vice president of new-technology and new-media development for The Walt Disney Co., demonstrated HDTV footage from the ABC network as well as trailers for upcoming Disney films. "I think the entertainment complex of the future," he said, "will encompass theatrical presentations as well as news and other programming."

The complete digital cinema delivery system, branded "Cinema Connexion by Boeing," has an estimated cost of about $130,000 per theater, according to Boeing executives. It uses satellite transmission and encryption technology culled from the aerospace manufacturer's commercial- and military-satellite experience. Williams Vyvx provided both satellite and fiber capacity to transmit the movie
, in the form of a 1.5-terabyte digital file, to AMC's Empire 25 Theaters, which was equipped with satellite dishes and fiber connections to receive it. QuVis' QuBit video server handled in-theater storage, compression and control of the digital content, while Texas Instruments' Digital Light Processing (DLP) projection technology displayed it. Technology consulting firm EnergyDigital helped organize the event.

Disney's Lambert was present mainly to discuss Disney's experimentation with digital-cinema projection, which began with the movie

in 1999. He showed trailers of
102 Dalmatians

and the animated feature
The Emperor's New Groove
, both of which will be digitally projected.

But Lambert also offered high-definition video footage of Super Bowl XXXIV and the 2000 Academy Awards. The footage, originated on Panasonic D-5 high-definition video tape, was fed into QuVis'QuBit server for playback and displayed using Texas Instruments' DLP Cinema projector.

The Academy Awards footage was 720-line progressive-scan HDTV recorded at 270 Mb/s on D-5 tape, according to ABC Vice President of Network Engineering Ken Michel. The Super Bowl content was 720p content that had been compressed (twice, in fact) to 45 Mb/s for distribution over the Vyvx fiber network last January, then recorded on D-5 at 270 Mb/s for archiving. The two minutes of D-5 material was encoded in real time into the QuBit server, he said.

"Pictures that have been compressed to 45 Mb/s twice held up quite well," said Michel, adding that the same quality could have been achieved in a live application, because the QuBit has the capability to directly input a 45-Mb/s DS3 feed.

"The difference is the projector," said Lambert, comparing the digital-cinema presentation with a terrestrial HDTV broadcast on an HDTV consumer set. "It gives higher resolution and better imagery."

The demonstration last week used the digital cinema system in a store-and-forward mode, which Boeing executives see as the most likely application for theatrical distribution. The entire file of

took some 10 to 12 hours to transmit using "garden-variety Ku-band" transponder rates of 54 Mb/s, said Dr. Ronald Maehl, Boeing senior vice president of business development. But, from a technology perspective, he said, live broadcasts of digital-cinema content approaching the quality of the ABC hi-def footage "are not that far off," particularly for material originated in high-definition video instead of film.

Maehl pointed out that new modulation techniques can already generate more than 100 Mb/s of throughput from a single satellite transponder. "We're very close to being able to do that."