Some exhibitors don’t want to ride the upgrade rollercoaster… For those who want to prolong the life of older digital equipment, DigiCine offer a solution. Peter Knight examines its retro-fit media player.
Words: Peter Knight
There are an estimated 17,000 or more series 1 projectors in use around the world. With cinema constantly progressing, new immersive sound options, the entry of laser projectors, and now LED technology hitting the market, what do you do if you’ve invested in digital equipment which is, in practical and economic terms, still viable for years to come? Do you want to wave goodbye to series 1 projectors that still give good service in your cinema?
To address this problem and provide longevity to earlier digital projectors, the DigiCine series 1 solution is designed to replace early media players with a new DCI-compliant feature-rich solution. With hot-swappable hard drives to allow for a quick change should one in the Raid fail, this new lease of life for series 1 kit gives exhibitors an alternative to the projector manufacturers’ replacement strategy.
Who are DigiCine?
From California, DigiCine is a combination of a technology and business solutions company. It offers a digital cinema server that has been designed to work specifically with both Series 1 and 2 projectors from Barco, Christie and NEC.
Digital Cinema Systems Corporation (DigiCine) was formed in August 2008 by Bill Elswick, former CTO at Avica Technology and chief technologist for digital cinema at DTS Inc. International investors acquired DigiCine in 2015 to transition it from a software development “skunk works” into a commercially viable entity selling its media players. Bill remains involved with DigiCine as technical architect.
The intellectual property used in the DigiCine media player has taken the best part of a decade to assemble. There are three core components to the solution, the integrated media block (IMB), the server and the SMS software. The IMB was originally designed by MikroM, based in Berlin, which came to market around 2011. There have been several enhancements not only to the PCB, but to the firmware over time. The most notable of these was an upgrade required for deployment with series 1 projectors. DigiCine funded the development by MikroM of the IMB and now owns the intellectual property for the IMB.
The DigiCine development team built the SMS software on a Windows operating system with the intention that it could be used in conjunction with a range of vendors’ hardware. The first DigiCine media players were installed with series 2 projectors in 2013/4, with the code being adjusted to address the series 1 projector ‘retro fit’ market, eventually gaining CTP accreditation in June 2017. The DigiCine media player is now in use in units across Europe, North America and the Far East.
The secret’s up DigiCine’s sleeve…
The DigiCine Digital Cinema System Sleeve is a managed enclosure that houses a series 2-capable IMB for use with a series 1 projector. The Cinema Sleeve allows the IMB to be seated in an external enclosure and communicates with the series 1 projector using DCI-compliant methodology.
The DigiCine Series 1 Cinema Sleeve uses the full functionality of the system and is only limited by the inherent capabilities of the projector. This means that non-image digital cinema upgrades in audio, subtitling, metadata, DCP support and other operations are fully supported as a result. Later on when the time comes to upgrade a series 1 projector to a series 2, it is possible simply to remove the IMB from the sleeve and install it into the series 2 projector using an upgrade kit which includes the projector-specific assembly.
Karl Anderson, DigiCine’s CEO, says that their goal is to breathe new life into projectors. At CinemaCon in April they demonstrated by using an old series 1 projector — and the company received favourable comments from Hollywood studio staff about the quality of the image it was producing.
“We are DCI compliant for series 1 and 2 (and the only one for series 1 projectors the last time I checked),” says Karl, adding, “The Hollywood position, as mentioned to me by several executives at CinemaCon, is that anything that helps exhibitors maintain DCI compliance, move forward with SMPTE DCP, and helps the smaller exhibitors remain viable has Hollywood’s support.” As in Jurassic World, life finds a way. It could just be that the DigiCine media player is exactly the thing to keep those series 1 “dinosaurs” trucking along.
The Brass Tacks
DigiCine Series 1 media players retail prices start at $8,999 — prices can vary dependant on configuration and volume discounts. Included within the price is the first years’ warranty and support. Annual support and warranty is based on 10% of the purchase price for each future year. The support and warranty not only provide cover in the event of any hardware-related issues, telephony and remote diagnostic support, but future software updates including functionality enhancements.
“The series 1 projectors are extremely reliable,” notes Karl Anderson, “and, in some cases, we’ve heard of them outlasting series 2 projectors. The primary issue is with the original media player where replacements are limited, component spares are becoming obsolete and the functionality of the software hasn’t kept pace with technology changes.” (continued overleaf)
“Some big exhibitors retained a stock of media players, but smaller ones haven’t. Projector companies sell new units and see the failure rate of early media players as motivation to exhibitors to replace an otherwise working projector.”
“Costs of a new projector are $25k+ for a series 2 unit and it may still need a new media player. Digital cinema evolves and we believe there are benefits in being able to defer a projector decision by simply replacing the media player.”
“Spending less than $10k now defers an expensive decision on a projector for maybe five years; allows you to take advantage of advances in technology (such as Atmos) and subtitling; enhances the moviegoers’ experience and reduces the cost of engineering call outs. Our media player enhances the value of series 1 projectors, rather than their having zero value.”
The Empire chain’s business model is to show feature films for a longer duration than many competitors — as a result there is a need for a high-capacity media player that allows for a greater retention of content, thereby reducing the need to undertake regular housekeeping. Empire elected to use Dell T420 servers with 10tb of storage and Windows Server 2008r2, but has recently upgraded to SuperMicro Windows 10 servers with 20tb of hot-swappable Raid 5 media storage. DigiCine’s media players are now the default standard media player solution for Empire, with more being introduced.