Taking lasers to the movies

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With Gravity winning big at the Oscars at the beginning of March, Jessica Rowbury looks at how laser projection technology is set to transform the 3D experience of watching blockbuster movies

The sci-fi blockbuster Gravity was one of the big winners at this year’s Oscars, picking up seven awards including Best Director. The film, which took five years to make, boasts some spectacular visual effects, but how would laser projectors change the viewing experience?

Laser projectors for cinema offer significant image enhancements over traditional xenon lamps, especially for 3D films like Gravity. Laser-based systems offer wider colour gamuts, higher levels of contrast – and, because the laser doesn’t degrade like a lamp, consistently higher brightness.

‘If you look at a star scene, and you can see small planets, these typically have colours at the edges. By using lasers there is a much higher distinction ratio – so there is much more contrast and everything looks more real,’ said William Mackenzie, CEO of Necsel. ‘It creates much brighter images, much better contrast, and much more immersive viewing.’

Necsel’s lasers have been adopted in projectors from Kodak and Christie Digital and its frequency-converted green laser array won a SPIE Prism Award earlier in the year at Photonics West.

Around 80 per cent of Gravity – which sees Sandra Bullock’s character stranded in space after debris destroys her shuttle – was computer-generated, with some scenes taking years to produce. Each frame of the scene showing the destruction of the International Space Station, for instance, took approximately 50 hours to complete.

Don Shaw, senior director of product management at Christie Entertainment Solutions, noted that one of the problems with current 3D projection systems is their relatively low light intensity. He commented: ‘Simply put, the movies are too dark, leaving audiences struggling to discern critical details that make up the image in front of them.’ He said that 3D systems have only 10 to 30 per cent of the light levels of 2D projectors.

The higher output power of lasers would make a film like Gravity much brighter and the detail in a scene like the Hubble Space Station destruction much clearer. It would also make 3D cinema more attractive to audiences – recent ticket sales of 3D screenings have been declining with customers opting to watch the cheaper 2D alternative.

Mackenzie commented: ‘Ultra-high brightness, above 45,000 lumens, is something you can’t achieve using one cinema projector. Everyone agrees that this market segment is going to be laser-based. You will start to see demos and physical installs this year, and then in 2015 you will see more of the regular roll-out of these projectors.’

Necsel’s frequency-doubled green laser, which won the Prism Award, is capable of generating a mix of photopically-optimised light wavelengths for each eye. ‘Using these lasers you can create wavelengths of green light separated specifically by around 15nm or 20nm, in order to create one set of wavelengths for one eye and another set of wavelengths for another eye,’ explained Mackenzie. ‘With colour separation 3D, the image is not affected when people move their head from side to side, like it is with vertical 3D. The large companies fully realise that now, and they are developing products based on colour separation 3D. You will start to see the roll-out of this type of 3D.’

Indeed, laser projection systems are starting to enter cinemas across the globe. Christie Digital is due to demonstrate its latest laser projection architecture at the upcoming CinemCon 2014 and National Association of Broadcasters NAB Show in Las Vegas in March and April. The company is also due to permanently install its digital laser projector in the Seattle Cinerama Theatre in Seattle, USA which will be the world’s first commercial digital laser projection system installed in cinema. Christie plans to start mass-production of its laser projectors in 2015.

Christie’s 4K DLP Cinema laser projector uses six primary colour laser modules (in multiples of 5,000 lumens) which are rack-mounted, and a fibre optic cable that delivers white light to the projector. By using six specific primary colours, it eliminates the need for inefficient filtering or polarising of the light as it leaves the projector. Dolby 3D glasses, specifically engineered to match the six primary laser light wavelengths, yield nearly 90 per cent light efficiency.

Furthermore, Imax has announced that as part of its partnership with China’s Wanda Cinema Line it will be installing 3D systems in 80 of Wanda’s cinemas, half of which will use the new laser projection technology. The installations will begin in 2016, which will propel Imax’s plans to launch laser projection systems and illuminate its large screens. ‘Exercising the 80-theatre option is a strong endorsement of the prospects for our laser system,’ said Imax CEO Richard Gelfond.

However, for laser projection systems to be used as standard in cinemas, one challenge that exists is safety legislation. Last year, Christie received the first US FDA approval for a manufacturer of DCI-compliant cinema projectors. But, international legislation for the use of lasers within a public environment is restricting the launch of laser cinema projection systems.

This month, NEC is planning to start selling its NC1040L 4K and NC1100L laser projectors to cinemas, but the legislation is slowing down the company’s entry to market. ‘There is some legislation that needs to change to allow the use of lasers within cinema before we can actively supply them,’ said Mark Kendall, business development, Digital Cinema, NEC. ‘The expectation is that the legislation will change in the next couple of months and then we will be able to sell the entry-level lasers.

‘But, there is still expected to be certain restrictions regarding high-end lasers that are used for larger screens – so 15, 20 or 30m screens,’ Kendall continued. ‘That legislation is not expected to change for, it could be one year, it could be two or three years – we don’t actually know.’

The Laser Illuminated Projector Association (LIPA), an organisation with companies including Christie, Sony, Dolby and Barco on its board, is actively working on the adoption of laser projection in cinemas, from both a technical and regulatory standpoint. Outdated government regulations can often hinder cinemas wanting to adopt laser technology, and LIPA members are trying to lessen the stigma associated with the word ‘laser’. ‘When you push a laser through a lens for laser illumination, it is no more dangerous than a lamp,’ said Mackenzie of Necsel. ‘There is a difference between pointing a laser, which can be dangerous, and actually putting a laser as a light source through the lens. [LIPA] have been pushing the concept which is starting to be more understood.’

Once companies overcome this challenge, however, it is anticipated that laser technology will be used as standard in cinemas in the coming years. ‘It will very likely be four to five years before laser projectors are used as standard in cinemas,’ said Richard Nye, cinema sales director, EMEA, Christie. NEC’s Mark Kendall agreed that laser projectors will start to be installed in all cinemas in the near future: ‘The [cinema] exhibitors will start to develop some screens with lasers as an early adoption introduction, and that will eventually spread to all cinemas offering laser over the next three, four or five years.’

About the author

Jessica Rowbury is a technical writer for Electro Optics, Imaging & Machine Vision Europe and Laser Systems Europe.

You can contact her on jess.rowbury@europascience.com or on +44 (0) 1223 275 476.

Find us on Twitter at @ElectroOptics, @IMVEurope, @LaserSystemsMag and @JessRowbury.