In the firm’s 90th anniversary year. Adam MacDonald interviews Harkness Screens’ Mark Ashcroft and Richard Mitchell to discuss the advances this well-established technology outfit has been making outside of its better-known screen manufacturing.
Most of us take for granted how much apps are now a part of our lives. Like the phones they live on, they are now intrinsic to daily activity. Indeed, according to Statista, there were over 5million apps available on all platforms at the end of 2018. Apps are big business — so perhaps it is no surprise that a more traditional cinema business should look at this technology market for future growth.
Harkness Screens will be familiar to many as the world-leading screen technology company, but the story behind the development of its innovative apps and the way in which they are transforming the market is perhaps less well known. Mark Ashcroft, CEO and Richard Mitchell, VP of global marketing and commercial development, have been pioneering the creation of ground-breaking innovations that are (re)shaping the way our industry approaches and implements design and installation. We look back at their relatively recent software development that created one of the industry’s leading platforms and how these tools are helping drive Harkness and the wider cinema technology industry — and ultimately improving movie-going.
VP global marketing and commercial development
Harkness is well-known for manufacturing screens for the cinema industry. When did the business first have the idea for an app?
Harkness has always been progressive; before we moved into developing the first tools of the Digital Screen platform, we were innovating by creating tools in the ‘digital space’. Our former CEO Andrew Robinson had the vision to see that digital technology had a role in the middle of a significant transition (35mm to digital). So we created the ‘Digital Screen Selector’ tool to help exhibitors specify the best lamp, projector, 3D system and screen for an auditorium whilst showcasing indicative operating costs.
It was a smart move with great foresight — so what drove development of the apps we see today?
Although many consider us to be ostensibly a “screen manufacturer”, we are in reality a technology business. You only have to look at investments we’ve made in recent times outside our core screen products, from the Digital Screen Checker through to the Curolux monitoring range (headlined by Qalif products), and our digital surveying expertise to understand how committed we are to developing technology.
Prior to Harkness, I spent nearly seven years in the construction industry with a leading software and service vendor. I saw an enormous technological shift from drawing or drafting in 2D to designing in a collaborative 3D environment. This involved building owners/operators through to architects, structural engineers, M&E engineers and civil engineers. That collaborative environment was designed to help drive better outcomes from buildings by gaining a more holistic view of the project before it left the drawing board, allowing for cost and risk reduction, less waste and faster project delivery. With software such as Autodesk Revit, it was possible to showcase the benefits of 3D in making informed decisions. To a large degree, the same thought process sat behind our premier tool, the Digital Screen Modeller.
We wanted to be able to illustrate what movie-goers would experience in terms of image quality from any seat in any size auditorium from any given technology configuration (projector, lamp, 3D system, screen) and how, with careful optimisation (such as curving and tilting the screen), that experience could be greatly improved. The other software tools we’ve developed were borne out of a desire to share our knowledge and expertise to drive better outcomes for movie-goers. It’s why we’re all here — to give viewers that “wow” experience and showcase content as close to the artistic intent of the director as possible.
Many readers will be aware of, and use, some of your apps, but what does the full line-up include?
We have a suite of five apps dating back to April 2013 and the launch of the Digital Screen Modeller up to the most recent Digital Screen Planner from 2016. Across iOS and Android, these have been downloaded over 15,000 times — remarkable given the small niche our industry occupies, at least in terms of personnel.
In order, in 2013 we launched our Digital Screen Modeller and Digital Screen Archiver (our presentation monitoring database utility). In 2014 came our Digital Screen Calculator (in essence our replacement for our original Digital Screen Selector tool). Then 2015 saw Digital Screen Verifier released (a light-measurement app for iPhone) and in 2016 the Digital Screen Planner (for defining the technical elements of screen specification such as size, shape and weight).
When Harkness introduced the Digital Screen Modeller back in 2013 it felt revolutionary to many. Despite being so simple to use, there was clearly a lot of work that went into it and it is a cornerstone of much that you’re doing today. Can you tell us more about its development?
We’ve been lucky to have a fantastic development team. They bought into our vision, understood our science and methodologies and turned them in to digital realities. If you think back to 2012 when we first started developing the Modeller, real-time 3D rendering on an iPad or Android device wasn’t as simple as it is today due to processing power available. That’s without the complex science that sits in the 3D environment we created. We knew early on that we were making a breakthrough – not only in terms of the accuracy of the Modeller, but also in terms of bringing a product to market that was a ‘game-changer’, offering customers a wealth of information not previously available in such an intuitive and simple to navigate way.
The Modeller immediately allowed customers and project teams to have an in-depth and consultative discussion with us about their approach to auditorium design and technology specification and, importantly for us, screens and screen design and how that optimisation could improve presentation quality.
You clearly believe in these apps and the team developing them with you, but what about ‘host’ technologies — the tablets and phones on which they work? There are so many variables, how did that affect your thinking?
Host technology has been pivotal. It would have been impossible to deliver our app platform had technology from the likes of Apple not been as robust as it is. We take for granted how incredible these devices are. There’s several thousand times more processing power in a base-level iPhone than NASA had on the Apollo program — and that sent man to the moon and back only 50 years ago!
Developing tools for different platforms has also proved to have its own level of complexity. One of the questions we’re most frequently asked is “when is the release of the Digital Screen Verifier on Android?”. It remains the most difficult technical challenge. When we developed the Verifier in 2015, with the intention of democratising brightness measurement to a non-technical level for exhibitors, we developed some ground-breaking IP to allow us to measure light on screen, however our ability to transpose that technology from Apple iOS (where it worked well) across to the Android platform proved virtually impossible because of the complexity of calibrating the app for the plethora of Android devices (there are hundreds if not thousands!) and indeed the on-board cameras. It remains a huge challenge — it may need another technological leap to make it a reality.
It’s clearly been, and continues to be, an exciting time to be part of the progressive work and development at Harkness; any final thoughts?
What we’ve created over the past six years has been unique and beneficial both to Harkness and the cinema industry. At times we’ve challenged ourselves and the limits of technology available and found ways to achieve our aims even if, on the face of it, they’ve seemed impossible. Behind those tools is an outstanding and skilled team and, importantly, a visionary CEO and board of directors who have continued to support our endeavours in developing these tools.
The development of apps has progressed under your leadership; did you have strong views on this before starting with the company?
Harkness was 84 years old when I joined — now I find myself researching 90 years of the company’s history. It’s inspiring to be part of that rich heritage. I was keen to explore the material science at the core of how we manage light and make screens. My experience with Sola Optical and Zeiss Visioncare set me up for investigating how Harkness Screen Technology could be developed to be the world’s best optical surfaces. Our R&D team probably think I have too many ideas about next-generation screens so are pleased I’m focusing on user experiences through digital assets!
Walking into Harkness, I was surprised to learn each screen is bespoke; I refer to it as a combination of art and science. The challenge was to capture that global knowledge and ensure it was available to all. I’d been fortunate to spend seven years in a senior position at the US retailer Party City, and my thinking was directed to customer experiences in-store and online. Our online presence has taken time to develop but as we approach our 90th celebrations I can say, we’re embarking on some new, exciting digital assets.
Have competitors in the screen business followed your lead in developing apps?
There are an increasing number of sites promoting cinema screens and some have a good look and feel. Our own is a treasure trove of resource and advice. On a number of sites, there are what we would describe as calculators. Perhaps we are slightly different in that we try to give the user access to all combinations of equipment. Every week I discover other possibilities in the Harkness databank; not copies of competitors but new ways to support cinemas. Two years ago we started to use reality capture to measure screens; the technology developed now appears to have many other applications and we are creating a new group within Harkness to fast track this and other assets
What new developments are you working on now?
Launching this month will be a new suite of microsites to support customers with information and online ordering. These are linked to our existing website but are designed to be “lite” and easy to navigate on mobiles. The style and nature of the content will provide thought leadership across screen discussions.
I’d categorise our approach as providing easily accessible resources that allow cinema spaces to be optimised using existing and/or new assets. By 2020, there will be 20,000 Harkness screens under three years old in over 120 countries. Those locations will be showing movies on the best screens; the auditoriums will have been fully optimised to give the best image quality. Our apps have allowed customers to optimise design, generate return on investment, specify and monitor light and sound levels, measure moiré and laser speckle, test for environmental damage, auto-generate maintenance scheduling and more.
Leaping forward, we’ll be investigating how apps and other digital assets can assist in upgrading the end-to-end quality of our screens, including digital inspection, monitored transportation and installation. The microsites will support the apps that will be at the heart of a ‘myHarkness’ approach. Managed well this will add to the relationship Harkness has been able to share with customers for decades to come.
It’s clear Harkness is more than a ‘screen company’. What are your thoughts on the positioning of apps within the business?
The incidence of digital in cinema is exponential. At Harkness we’ve reviewed how we manage existing and future digital assets and over the next 18 months we will move to an integrated platform for all existing and future apps. This will give the user experience added value. Professionals will be able to use these tools to give cinema-goers the best presentation quality; maximising the full potential of all the assets in the cinema. The screen as ever is front and centre.