East, West take cue on digital cinema standards

East, West take cue on digital cinema standards

Washington and Hollywood unite as movie, tech executives discuss ways to promote interoperability


The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Information Standards Organization held a film festival this month, but no Oscars were presented.

When the question was raised as to how government can foster fledgling digital cinema, some in the audience replied, 'Stay out of the way.'

But Hollywood needs Washington to help set standards to make digital cinema as interoperable as 35-mm film. And Washington needs Hollywood to develop motion imagery for military and other applications.

Stephen Long, a program manager at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, said digital technology holds promise for the rapid collection, distribution and management of moving images for military and intelligence applications. Besides affordability and interoperability, military users want standards for handling the metadata, he said.

The conference at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., drew about 250 people from the movie and high-tech industries and from U.S. and foreign governments.

Electronic management, reproduction and delivery of movies could save Hollywood half the estimated $1.2 billion it spends each year to make and ship 35-mm film prints, which deteriorate with use and over time.

The Walt Disney Co. plans to release all of its feature films in both digital and film formats by next year, said Phil Lelyveld, Disney's vice president of digital industry relations. Most of the rest of the movie industry is expected to follow suit in the next five years.

Lights, cameras, digital

For now, however, digital cinema is in the demonstration stage. Digital light processing projectors from Texas Instruments Inc. have been installed in 31 theaters worldwide, 17 in the United States. Major studios have released 16 feature films in digital format, including 'Star Wars: Episode I'The Phantom Menace,' the animated 'The Emperor's New Groove' and the computer-generated 'Toy Story II.' Nearly 2 million people have attended 19,450 digital showings. 'A lot of people aren't aware it's digital projection,' Lelyveld said. 'They think the sound is better.'

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size="2" color="#FF0000">NIST's film festival drew about 250 attendees'a mix of film and high-tech industry and foreign and U.S. government officials.

But to convince theater owners to buy $100,000 digital projectors instead of $30,000 film projectors, digital cinema is going to have to be a lot better than film.

It must have standardized production specifications and be capable of transmission over multiple types of media. It must work with projectors from various manufacturers, just like film.

Digital movies so far have been mastered for the Texas Instruments digital projector, the only one available. Videodisk has been the preferred distribution method, although the movie 'Bounce' was transmitted in November from California to New York over a combination satellite and ground-fiber network.

While the Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers and the Motion Picture Experts Group hammer out technical standards, NIST has its own digital cinema project to standardize calibration, testing and metrics for imaging and display.

The challenges are formidable. A two-hour movie runs about 1.3T, uncompressed, and there are as yet no compression standards. And digital cinema format is not just high-definition TV writ large.

In addition to its larger scale, it comes from different source material and uses a different color scale. It must run sequentially at 24 frames per second rather than being line-scanned like HDTV's 30 frames per second.

Once industry and NIST have set technical standards, management challenges arise. Digital cinema must be secured, whether on a videodisk or hard drive or streamed over a network. Only authorized users must access it under specified conditions.

Encryption with the Triple Data Encryption Standard and NIST's Advanced Encryption Standard probably will provide enough raw security, said William E. Burr, manager of NIST's Secure Technology Group. But Burr, a member of the team that selected the AES algorithm, said developing a scheme to secure digital cinema as well as digital rights will be even tougher than coming up with AES.

Keeping pirates out of digital cinema probably will be impossible. 'Realistically, the best you can hope for is to slow them down,' Burr said.

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