At this year's Cinemacon, a cinema exhibition convention held in Las Vegas, an unexpected new technology was showcased by two major technology companies as an option for cinema screenings. Both Samsung and Sony gave demos of large-scale LED screens that would be suitable for cinemas. The two companies had different approaches to showcasing and discussing their offerings, and both are at different points in their product development.
For its part, Sony had an open viewing of its Crystal LED (CLED) technology; it showed a screen of about five metres (16 feet) in width with a display of some content, including Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn which was shown at 120fps and 4K and looked very good. The onscreen brightness was many times that of the standard cinema screen. The screen is panel-based LED and therefore is scalable by adding more panels. Sony pointed out that it was by no means a finished product but was being shown in order to gain feedback on this technology and to see whether this technology had a future in cinema.
A private screening of a 10 metre (34 foot) Samsung LED screen was offered to selected exhibitors at Cinemacon. Footage was shown at 146 foot Lamberts. Despite this being a surprise to most people, Samsung believe they are quite close to DCI certification, having gone through the process of the DCI Compliance Test Plan at Keio University Test Facility. GDC’s new JETREEL Premium Large Format system is also using the Samsung LED as part of its offer.
A third company has appeared in the market since Cinemacon. HSI Immersive launched an LED screen specifically targeted at 3D in cinema, known as Havavision 3D LED. The company claims that the screen induces little or no 3D vertigo (nausea and headaches sometimes brought on by 3D systems, especially in the days of 35mm 3D). The company is undertaking a US roadshow to present their screens to cinemas but also theme parks, museums, trade show exhibits, experiential marketing and other industries as well. The roadshow includes 6mm, 2.5mm, and 1.87mm pixel pitch 3D LED displays. The screen can be scaled up and down. The company claims that the screen exceeds DCI specifications and is currently undergoing the DCI certification process.
This technology will be divisive. Some will love it because of the image quality and the operational advantages, some will hate it because it is projection-less and ‘just not cinema’. It has the potential to be genuinely disruptive to the existing cinema industry structure. The disappearance of the cinema screen and projector would be a radical departure and this may be too much for an innately conservative industry. However, having overcome the resistance to digital cinema projection in recent years, that conservativeness may be a thing of the past and the industry is now more used to the changes inherent in the spread of technology.
Any migration to LED would take a long time for the whole industry, maybe even several decades. The technology is at an early stage, and there is work needed to purpose them for a cinema auditorium. One of the main effects of these announcements has been to add another level of confusion to the market as we approach the replacement cycle for digital projection. The exhibitor is now offered several conflicting paths for new equipment: Xenon, UHP mercury, laser phosphor (two types), RGB laser (two types), and now LED screens.
The central issue is probably the cost of such a screen although no actual prices have yet been made public. The business case for an LED screen may be hard to make if the cost is too high. While it does solve some problems such as brightness and contrast that are confronting cinema as it moves ahead in its technology curve, the issue of how to finance a high-priced screen will be a major factor in its success. The screens have a comparatively long lifespan, but in fact the lifespan could be too long, as most business cases are made up to a period of 10-15 years. If the manufacturers can present a business case for the cost (the Sony screen lasts for over 85,000 hours at up to 50% brightness) there is a future for LED screens. As with digital projection, cost will come down over time if volumes increase, and the nature of the screen does offer a TCO argument similar to that laser is offering (lack of consumables and in this case a projector, booth and all the kit in the booth).
Some questions do spring to mind.
What happens if an LED pixel dies? With a panel-based system, the panel containing the problematic area can be replaced. The new panel may appear brighter than the surrounding ones as the LED screens brightness over time. That could be managed by having a stock of ‘partially used’ panels available. The key is not to have to replace the whole screen if a section of it is no longer working.
Another crucial issue with a LED cinema screen is where to put the audio. With a perforated screen using a traditional projector, part of the audio system is placed behind the screen and this poses no problem. This is not possible with a LED display. Samsung acquired Harman International Industries for around $8 billion in November 2016, for its sound expertise (mainly automotive but it also has a professional solutions arm) and the group believes it can solve the issue of where the speakers will be placed for an LED screen.
The issue of what to call such a screen has also come up. An LED cinema screen seems a bit obvious although pretty accurate. Suggestions so far include Direct View Screens, Active Cinema Screens, Direct Cinema Screen, Projection-less screen, and Projection-free screen.