El.pub Analytic Issue Number 3
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Contents: Introduction | Celluloid or Silicon? | E-cinema Technology | Display technology | Data distribution | New Applications | Infrastructure for cultural minorities | The not-so-big screen | Business issues | Reducing distribution costs | New revenue streams | Installation costs | Middle men | IPR | Support | Conclusion
Some would argue that the technology that underpins e-cinema is not the most important aspect of the e-cinema revolution; other factors are as important, if not more so. Looking back from some point in the future, say ten years from now, what would we see? We would see the success of e-cinema cinema as being due not only to advances in display technology, but also to the development of new markets and the winning of the hearts and minds of the film industry.
Nevertheless, there are many technical issues to consider. With the right technology, films and TV pictures can be displayed electronically on large screens with quality comparable to celluloid film. Data compression and high-speed data links makes it possible to distribute material electronically.
What are the technical problems that have to be overcome in order to provide a viable e-cinema system? Snell & Wilcox has considerable experience in the field of processing moving images in real time. Roderick Snell, co-founder, says 'It is not difficult for television to match the sharpness of film. Television can look very sharp, although the resolution of the finest detail is nowhere as good as film.'
Film can convey smooth clear images that have excellent detail and depth of colour.
Existing television pictures, on the other hand, suffer from smears, blurred motion, jagged edges and the inherent line structure. These shortcomings may not be noticeable in domestic viewing conditions, but are unacceptable to most people when projected onto a large screen.
Conventional display processors attempt to reduce the line structure by repeating lines either two or four times; this fills the screen, but no new information is added. The Snell & Wilcox system assesses what new information is required to recreate the integrity of the original image, inserts it into the image. The resulting display has no visible lines and is comparable to film in terms of clarity and sharpness.
Without compression the size of a 90-minute e-cinema film for presentation in a first-run cinema is around 500 Gbytes. This is a large amount of data that, at present, is not easily handled. If an e-cinema had an E3 (34 Mbits/s) data link, for example, it would take 3.5 hours for the film to be transferred. A live, i.e. real-time, display at this high level of quality would not be possible using a 34 Mbits/s link.
As bandwidth links become more prevalent and less expensive, it is foreseeable that in the not-to-distant future the cost of E3 links will be affordable. Viable business cases will balance the cost of distribution with the projected revenues. Satellite distribution presents an interesting alternative to terrestrial distribution of e-cinema, since the equivalent data throughput of an analogue TV satellite transponder would be sufficient. Satellites can be used for multipoint distribution where any number of receiving sites can be supplied simultaneously.
To reduce the time needed to download a film requires either a faster data link or a reduction in the amount of data to be transferred. Data compression can be used to reduce the volume of data and this usually entails some loss of quality. Sometimes it's not so much a question of quality loss as using the level of quality that is appropriate and acceptable to the viewer. For example, one might find an e-cinema installation in a pub or a club. The same 90-minute e-cinema film could be downloaded in nine hours using an E1 (2 Mbits/s) link and 100:1 data compression.
'Once you can reduce the bit rate of electronic film, you can send it by fibre link, hard disk, even high definition DVD', said Snell. 'In Europe, the French in particular are very sophisticated in their plans to send high definition and cinema quality pictures overnight, so a three-hour film would take nine hours to download. There are so many ways of transporting e-cinema material that the actual technology used isn't so important.'
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