Arguably the most significant innovation in cinema since digital projection, the use of LED screens to show first-run films has been a hot topic for over a year. Patrick von Sychowski examines the market entrants.
Nobody seems sure what to call new cinema LED technology, whether it is direct view display (awkwardly abbreviated DvD), or active screens, video walls or something else. But nobody who has seen the demonstrations by Samsung and Sony could fail to be impressed by the brightness, clarity, definition, colours, blacks and contrast of the projector-less screens. If anything, cinema purists find them too perfect, much like digital projection is faulted for its lack of flicker, scratches, weaves and other photochemical film characteristics.
Samsung Onyx Theatre
Samsung became the early proponent of cinema LED when it held private demonstrations at CinemaCon in March 2017. The cinema industry was stunned by the speed with which the South Korean electronics major won DCI certification in May 2017 and installed the first unit with Lotte in Seoul last July. Eight sites have since been installed or announced, including in China, Europe and the US.
The price tag of around $750,000 (including screen, audio and install) is still the biggest block to widescale adoption. The second is that the screen only comes in the size of 10.3m for the 4K version. Yet the promises of more than 100,000 hours’ lifespan means that, according to integrators, cinemas are seriously weighing it up as an alternative to laser projection. At its US launch, Samsung also announced plans for a 14m (45.9 ft) screen before the end of the year with wider pixel width (3.3mm instead of 2.5mm). The company also claims up to $25,000 savings for newly built cinemas by eliminating the need for a projection booth and the addition of three rows of seats.
The installation of the first Samsung screen in a Hollywood post house (Roundabout in Santa Monica) should mean that feature films can now be mastered for the high brightness HDR screens, though Studios are not rushing to pay for yet another DCP versioning for a still-small installed base. Worries about damaged displays has led Samsung to issue assurances that defective modules can be replaced and recalibrated in just a few hours.
While some high-profile directors such as Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan have expressed concerns about what they see as a ‘big television’ screen in cinemas, UNIC President Phil Clapp stated that he believes that they are in the majority. Moreover, despite these reservations, Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” was the first film screened at Samsung’s first US installation.
Presently the Samsung Onyx Theatre situation is similar not only to the prototype DLP cinema deployment in 1999 in terms of installed base and cost but also in terms of industry buzz that it is generating. It remains to be seen whether it will similarly dominate cinemas in 15 years’ time. Samsung has an ambitious target of “10 percent of cinemas across the world by 2020.” But Samsung is not the only one advocating a bright future for projector-less cinema screens.
Sony showed off its LED screen at CinemaCon 2017 in a public demo intended to gain feedback from the cinema industry, rather than announce entry into the field. The CLEDIS display was already in commercial use, but not DCI certified for cinemas. However, with Sony projectors having their own IMB, they would not need to look outside the company for an integrated cinema solution. In practice, the CLEDIS screen was considered ‘over-specced’ for cinema use, with a price tag to match. Feedback, though, was very positive.
Sony is now on a path to launching a cinema LED screen, most likely before the end of 2018, with the new name of Crystal LED. Unlike Samsung, however, Sony has to be mindful of not undermining its existing projector line-up, including the recently launched blue-phosphor laser. Sony is also at pains to stress that its active screen solution is different from Samsung’s in that it uses micro LEDs.
Oliver Pasch, Sony Digital Cinema Europe
“Sony is committed to exhibition through its significant investment in developing Crystal LED, the future of the premium cinema experience with its true and verified contrast ratio of over 1,000,000 to 1! With infinite contrast and colour reproduction that can match what the filmmaker intended, Sony is taking every measure to ensure we deliver the right technology at the right time for the best picture in theatres. With the modular scalable design of our Crystal LED technology it caters for every size of screen —we’re excited to bring this to market for exhibition in the near future and are nearing the end of DCI approval.
Our Crystal LED Active Screen solution is coming to market in its current generation, but we’ll continue to develop to the solution for future iterations, working with the Hollywood creative community and studios to develop a solution best fit for their needs, coupled with a realistic product for implementation by our exhibitor partners.”
NEC, Barco and Christie
At Cinemacon 2018 NEC hosted demos of a prototype LED display that showed stereoscopic 3D using passive glasses (Samsung uses more expensive active glasses). Resolution was low but 3D effects were impressive and without eye strain. NEC is confident it can get resolution up and offer a viable product in the near future.
Both Barco and Christie have extensive experience in LED displays for indoor (including cinema lobbies) and outdoor use. A particularly impressive one greets visitors approaching Barco’s new HQ in Kortrijk, Belgium. Christie even formed a partnership with Wanda Film Holdings early this year for a joint Cinema Technology Centre of Excellence that among other things will look at cinema LED screens. As such both Barco and Christie have expressed confidence that they too can offer LED solutions for cinema, once there is significant market demand. Unlike Samsung, they clearly do not want such a display to siphon off attention from their current line up of projector-based solutions.
LG… and China enter the fray
Samsung’s biggest competitor in the LED TV and display panels is fellow Korean major LG. There are rumours the company will soon come out with a cinema LED product. This could lead to others, such as Sharp or Vizio also entering the field. Yet the biggest potential ‘threat’ to Samsung could come from China. Unlike DLP chips, which are strictly controlled and licensed by Texas Instruments, there is nothing inherently proprietary about LED technology. This means that a suitably good LED display with a DCI-approved IMB and FIPS could pass cinema compliance tests. While GDC Techonlogy is currently working with Samsung, there is nothing to stop it from sourcing LEDs from a manufacturer in China for its own solution in the future.
China has long resented being dependent on ‘foreign’ projection technology and manufacturers, not least since becoming the world’s biggest cinema market by screen count. Cinema LED could give China the opportunity to source future screen technology from 100% domestic suppliers.
And the audio issue?
Because speakers cannot be placed behind LED screens, clever solutions have to be found to replicate regular 5.1, 7.1 and immersive sound. This challenge was addressed earlier by AMC for its Taurus curved screens and also in Finnkino’s AS2 solution used for its Scape PLF and over 100 other screens. This involves putting speakers in an array above and around the screen. Psych-acoustics mean people are generally able to distinguish better whether sound is coming from left or right but not up or down.
Samsung has improved on this using speakers pointing at the screen, ‘bouncing’ them off it to the audience. “With support from JBL by Harman Professional’s sculpted surround sound system, Onyx Sound expands the audio sweet spot in a given theater,” Samsung explained at the launch of its first US screen, which, funnily enough, is less than 15mins drive from Harman’s US headquarters.
Onyx LED: the numbers
10.2 x 5.4 meters – 96 panels @ 2.5 mm (4K)
5.1 x 2.7 meters – 24 panels @ 2.5 mm (2K)
14 x 7.2 x meters – ?? panels @ 3.1 mm (4K)
1 module = 3,840 LED lights (16cm high x 15 cm wide)
1 cabinet = 24 modules (6 high x 4 wide)
4K screen = 96 cabinets (6 high x 16 wide)
146 ftL (foot-lambert) or 500 nit.
15-25 ftL is high-end for laser projection
Samsung Onyx: USD $500,000-$800,000 (screen, audio and installation)
Top RGB laser: USD USD $150,000-$300,000 (projector only)
3/7/17: Lotte Cinema World Tower (Seoul, South Korea)Lotte
20/7.17: Cinema in Centum City (Busan, South Korea)
4/2/18: Wanda Theater Wujiaochang (Shanghai, P.R. China)
20/3/18: Arena Cinemas (Zurich, Switzerland)
1/4/18: Paragon Cineplex (Bangkok, Thailand)
20/4/18: Pacific Theaters Winnetka 12 (Chatsworth, CA, USA)
later in 2018: Golden Screen Cinemas (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
later in 2018: Cineplexx Cinemas (Vienna, Austria)
Post-production – 20/4/18: Roundabout (Santa Monica, USA)
10 screens total open in May 2018
15 screens total open in June 2018
30 screens total open by end of 2018
Samsung Onyx is the third digital cinema display device to be certified for EclairColor HDR-enabled pictures after Sony’s SRX-500 and Barco’s DP4K projectors.