Digital Cinema at 20: Remembering Digital Projection at ShoWest 1999

There at the very dawn of digital projection, Michael Karagosian recalls his firsthand experience from the booth of a 1999 demo of the rival digital technologies that pitted the new order against the old.

While walking through Bally’s in Las Vegas during  CinemaCon this year, I was reminded of the first public demonstration of digital projection held in the hotel’s Jubilee Theater some 20 years earlier during the 1999 ShoWest. The audience received a glimpse of the future that day, but there was a very different story taking place in the projection booth.

The day before this 1999 demonstration, I made my way to the projection booth with Clyde McKinney, my business partner in Cinema Group and CinemAcoustics. It was projector set-up day, the day before the demonstration was to take place, and I was hoping to get a preview. In the booth were three projectors:  a Kinoton film projector, a prototype DLP projector from Texas Instruments, and a Hughes-JVC D-ILA projector. The Hughes-JVC was memorable for its massive size, not unjustly compared to a refrigerator.

For one enamored by technology, this was quite an array. My early career was in semiconductors, and while I didn’t have direct experience in imaging devices, I had more than enough experience with the challenge of operating silicon over temperature to wonder how digital projectors would hold up in real-world use. On my far right was the Hughes-JVC. When I arrived in the booth, this was where all the action was. A crew of engineers were standing over it, projecting test pattern after test pattern into the auditorium. Each pass would lead to a flurry of adjustments, then the  process would repeat. I must have been there for an hour, observing this repetition and waiting to see the TI projector in action. The crew working on the Hughes-JVC had no time to chat. But the TI guys had lots of time. I began to think they had the wrong end of the deal for setup, because I never saw them project an image. They laughed and said they had plenty of time to setup during the others’ breaks. I wasn’t sure if this was arrogance or truth.

Clyde and I went back to the projection booth the following day about an hour before showtime. The auditorium would soon be packed with ShoWest attendees to see, for the first time, two very different digital projection technologies pitted against a quality film print from the Kinoton. But today the TI guys weren’t so relaxed and cheerful. There was a flurry of activity around the TI projector. Apparently someone had tripped a power cable and blew out one of the boards…

Now here was a real test. A digital projector was down, and a critical public demonstration was about to take place. Could they get it back up and re-aligned before showtime? I was thinking of the prior day’s litany of tests with the Hughes-JVC. Surely had this happened to that projector, it would have been left out of the demo? To my amazement, the TI team, Harold Milligan and Steve Krycho, made the repair in record time, did a quick setup, and pulled off the show without a glitch. 

There’s a lot to be impressed about with the DLP technology. It’s unique in its ability to modulate light digitally without an analog conversion of the signal, and the technology is inherently stable over temperature, which is important for eliminating color drift. At the time though, I wasn’t well-versed in the technology behind DLP. What impressed me that day was that the DLP projector could be repaired and up for a show in short order.

I remained in the projection booth for that first show and didn’t get the full benefit of comparing image quality of the two digital projectors against film. I did see enough, though, to be convinced which technology would eventually drive the industry to digital projection.

I ran into Harold Milligan years later and we both recalled the “excitement” of that day. We had quite a laugh. Sadly, when writing this piece, I learned that Harold had since passed away. I think of what would have happened had the DLP projector been pulled from that demonstration. There were many pioneers behind the emergence of digital cinema technology, and TI’s Harold and Steve are counted among them.

Michael Karagosian
Industry consultant and creator of