Aug 212006

Digital Cinema PVRThere has been many hundreds of blog posts about the slow decline of box office cinema over the past seven years or so. The growth of gaming in the home combined with DVD sales and decent quality TV screens in the same room have meant going to the ‘pictures’ for many is a special treat – rather than the ‘best way’ to see a movie. Also in certain territories the cinema experience has become rather sterile and samey – how many of us think of the standard experience now as drifitng along mid-way through a theatrical release, a 100 ish seater mini-cinema, a choice of popcorn and coke, and fifteen minutes of trailers to sit through. Then you may or may not get a quality image and sound. Half way through a movies two to six week run or so the print is dirty, perhaps a few edits have appeared (for whatever reason) and focus, synch and sound may not be setup right. You sit there thinking, perhaps I should have waited for the DVD, or why there are only five other people in the large room with you. OK we all have our own take on the cinema experience. Often a social event more than a regular way to enjoy movies. (Go on flame me). OK so what is the ‘big dark room’ industry going to do.

Well ever since the late nineties when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace the first to be projected digitally the promise has not been fulfilled. The nearest thing we had to a pristine, photorealistic, “am I here” experience has been 70mm IMAX, particularly 3D IMAX. But the story world and narrative quality of these films has been dubious and more in the Discovery camp than Speilberg. Then we had annoying artifacts with vertically orientated projection and for certain motion it was very ‘flickery’ on many shots. I was lucky to see the first digital end-to-end creation when Toy Story II was shown at the IBC conference in Amsterdam in 2000 or so. Stunning. I remember walking right up to the screen and seeing no drop in quality. Then in 2004 I saw another end to end system, panavision’s Genesis. Genesis is the digital equivalent of 35mm and this was an invited audience comparison between 35mm and Genesis. The panavision rep showed a variety of shots back to back (and this was a 4k chip I recall – the standard will be 2k DLP or so) and asked the audience, digital or 35mm. Everyone got it wrong. And in the audience of only 30 or so, many cinematographers including those working with Robert Rodriquez and Bob Zemekis’s were fooled. Anyway so what about the rest of the world. The real point about Digi Cinema is that the potential for immersion is much greater – and scale and fooling the senses is much higher, as I talked about in my Immersion: Ambient TV, addictive MMORPG post.

There have been many ‘digi cinema is about to get going’ report over the past years, this USA today one is typical from 2005 but this BBC Tech report last week called “Cinema meets Digital Technology” is very bullish about the changes ahead and it points out that in the last year digi cinemas have tripled…

Now the industry has reached a watershed, and digital cinema is about to take off in a big way. A couple of years ago there were only 335 digitally-equipped screens worldwide. By the end of last year, in which Hollywood finally published a common technical standard, that number had almost trebled, to 849 screens. Forecasts predict 17,000 screens in just a few years from now, concentrated in the movie world’s spiritual home, the US. The Hollywood studios are driving this transition because they stand to make enormous savings, which they can pass on to the cinemas themselves. The most obvious saving is in distribution costs. An average length feature film print costs around £700 ($1,300). Encoding it and delivering a hard drive to the cinema works out at a fraction of that. In future, the possibility of delivering the movie by satellite or over the net has got the bean counters salivating. One of the other great costs to the movie industry is piracy, which Hollywood claims has cost it $6bn (£3.2bn).

Now I wonder if that cost saving will be passed onto the viewer. Of course not. Just like the telcos who will cap and overcharge its broadband/IPTV customers until it has recouped many times over the ‘broadband pipes’ , you can be sure that cost will stay as they are even though they will save around $1.2 billion over print distribution. There are still issues with cost though as each projector costs around $70k US more than its 35mm equivalent at the moment and does not last as long – but the economics make sense once all cinemas are digital. Now once cinema is globally digital interesting things can take place. Firstly, within months the first satellite distribution channels will be set-up for national and potentially global, footprint simultaneous releases (as the article suggested) but this has been a key business model from day one. We are now in the world of a HUGE PVR (personal video recorder). A digital equipped cinema becomes the same as your VCR/PVR in the home. It can be encrypted to the disk so it cannot be taken off. It can track how many plays. It can transmit ticket sales against those plays. It can be updated at the drop of a hat. So all of a sudden we have dynamic cinema. As audiences drop to less than 10 for a viewing, the next film is put onto the system. Another aspect of this is that rather than the general public waiting for the DVD a few weeks later, they can be sold and made at the cinema from the same digital copy but also for a sky high fee, a rich home theatre owner could potentially buy play rights to the same digital capture and projection from the same download infrastructure. There are many other business models that we could explore and I have heard hundreds at NAB, Digital Hollywood and IBC particularly. What I am more interested in is the potential for more ‘interactive’ experiences once a digital system is in place. Anything can be added into the digital stream that hits the LCD chip in the powerful light stream. So dynamic overlays, sms streams, cameras inside the cinema, multi-screens, live games, full screen virtual worlds with multiple players, live subtitles, etc etc: As well as interactive potential we also have the return of 3D. As the BBC article goes on to say.

The advent of digital also means that some technologies which were a bit suspect in the past can be revived. Brace yourselves for the return of 3D. In truth 3D never really went away – it has been the staple of the big-screen Imax experience for years. Imax uses two film projectors and two reels of film to fool our brains into thinking we are seeing 3D. That process has been too expensive for regular cinemas to contemplate, but digital projectors make it affordable for the first time. “But now a single digital projector can run at a higher frame rate and show both left eye and right eye from a single projector.” There is now a real buzz about 3D; there are seven new 3D movies slated for release in the coming year. With technology available to recreate old classics, as well as show sporting events, in 3D there is a real feeling that 3D is finally coming of age.

So I am getting quite excited by this. Combining startlingly clear digital 3D on a 200ft screen, with a live social network (all those crowds of people around you), combined with a programme that may include some passive stories, that will include some collaborative quest/gameplay and perhaps a mix of the two – now theres a reason why I would leave the computer screen or DVD movie and get down the local ‘big dark room’. The question remains though will digital cinema just continue to be a more efficient way to play those two hour films, or cleverly insert topical and local, targeted ads digitally – perhaps we will see some more personalized applications and allow rich clientele to insert their video proposal to girlfriend, snippets of family movies for the party crowd during the trailers, or how about a vote for a few YouTube films at the start from all those seated. How about cinemas becoming the place you watch the big match – why not, even the pre-TV release of Desperate Housewives and so on. Stick a set-top box next to the projector and voila – the list is endless. Digital opens doors, which cinemas will take the risk and do more than movies?

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006

Jul 222006

A quote to start off yet another Virtual World post…

‘“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion’” Democritus (Greek philosopher, 460-370bc)

AFTRS Island Second Life

We live in a world where you don’’t need to eat or drink, you cannot die or harm yourself, you can breathe underwater and you can fly? Add to this our ability to build things in mid-air, walls you can walk through, objects that disobey basic physics and we have the potential to create social spaces only limited by our imagination. I have decided to take on solo, the task of completing the first phases of a sim, an Island we called Esperance. The build is truly started from scratch on behalf of the ‘‘real life’’ Australian Film TV and Radio School, where I currently work as Director of LAMP, outreaching into the Australian Industry – but also focussing on activating the internal school community. Given a blank canvas I have come face to face with the tensions that exist in creating back-to-back social and work-spaces, in a virtual world. The main tension is actually one persistent in second life – to be representational or to be original, to innovate or invent and to over-build or leave space.

Second Life Midnight CityBut to start with a broader question, given the flexibility mentioned above in Second Life why is there still such a high propensity of real world cloning taking place? Not just copying individual instances of architecture but dense populating communities. OK I know the way land is sold back-to-back in SL, that it is inevitable that it will get dense but even on islands our human nature drives us to build way too much. There are malls just like our real world ones, city streets and buildings with ceilings, windows and physical walls and endless roads and pavements so you can ‘‘walk’’ around. Yes it does seem remarkable that in Second Life many of the residential, social and commerce areas are just models of our real world spaces for our enhanced real world avatars to exist in. Some of the earliest builds like Midnight City (above) complete with New York police sirens and pneumatic drills, replicas of Amsterdam, endless Arabian palaces and several concrete University campuses abound. Why do we need the recognisable? Why is the recognisable not even extended slightly to include unique, never before seen features? OK there are a few but the mainland of SL is, at a rough guess, over 90% environments that can be built in the real world. We do need some recognisable areas to start from sure but why not extend and experiment.
AFTRS Island Second LifeThe areas I enjoy most in SL tend to be the enhanced naturalistic spaces such as The Lost Gardens of Apollo, the Underwater Caves at Rua or The Pot Healer Game on Numbakulla. So in designing the AFTRS island from ground up I had to balance the need for work (media production spaces) along with the need to socialise, play and relax. I knew this was going to be a never-ending, iterative organic process so I took the plunge and over one day two weeks ago effectively built what will be the foundation of the AFTRS Island (I have enhanced it last weekend and those are the images you see here). With a list of needs I decided to roughly consider the island as two broad areas, work and the play. I started a ground level literally with the terrain greyscale file. This allows me to terraform the whole island in one go using a simple 256 pixel square 13 layer raw graphics file, manipulated in photoshop. After five or so misses I got the basic landscape close to what I needed and have of course been tweaking on the ground ever since. I wanted a balance of flat, built up spaces and naturalistic, vertical play areas. That balance I believe is still being achieved, but will be an on-going journey, especially when staff and students start to get their building ‘‘legs’’. I did have the option to make the ground completely natural and build functional spaces in the sky but I believe work can be enhanced by being near the coast with crashing waves and natural sounds around you.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw

AFTRS Island Second LifeTo follow on from the start of this post I had a traditional tryptch of building options ‘– representations, enhanced representations and originals. The representational spaces included the main cinema/theatre (pic above) a smaller enclosed forty seat TV studio, a range of production backlot for film sets, and a few scattered dept. offices. The theatre took most time as I wanted something to hold up to one hundred in a screening situation and double as a multi-camera live shoot for theatrical and music performance. It is constantly evolving and getting close to a functional space. I built a ‘‘representational’’ sadly, new camera for all areas, and added AngryBeth’s great camera switching script that she gave to me a couple of weeks ago.

AFTRS Island Second LifeThe enhanced representations included a main AFTRS information, meeting tower and a range of naturalistic forest, coastal and mountain social spaces. The tower, which sits in the mid point of the island, would hold areas for visitors to see, interact with and find out about Australian Media plus a few permanent office-type areas. There was talk of building a replica of our new campus, but as this is still being designed and my reticence for the real world I suspect that will go away. For the main tower I wanted something that allowed views of the whole island at work, didn’’t feel claustraphobic and was easy to explore ‘– by flight as opposed to walking up long ramps everywhere.

AFTRS Island Second LifeThe picture on the right show some aspects that are still being developed, but the translucent, phantom walls and easy to access layers means we can keep developing upwards as departments and info needs come on stream. It takes some getting used to, avoiding walking through phantom walls as you will fall out of the building, but hey don’’t walk through walls. The central fly-up tube is proving interesting in tests as it requires some control over your ascent skills, slowing as you get to the floor of interest and flying through the wall. I may build this on the outside wall as people tend to keep falling back down the central tube as they explore each floor!

AFTRS Island Second LifeThe third build paradigm, the original spaces include some ground up designed rotating meeting pods which allow up to nine seated chatters, a breakout five way enclosure and a couple of underwater meeting spaces. I was surprised how sitting underwater with fish swimming around actually allowed one to focus far more than a boardroom, campground or simulated coffee shop. I am developing a growing range of experimental flying spaces, many slowly rotating but allow all users to focus on each other while providing a sense of change and space. I like meetings in NightSpys ‘‘Holodeck’’ that I have permanently out in the backlot areas, but as this is 360 views of our real world it breaks whatever fourth wall there already is in SL ‘– no I am developing more amorphous, soundscape and organic spaces that promote original thinking which I will cover in a future article.

AFTRS Island Second LifeFinally back to the start it is worth pointing out the thinking behind the layout of the island. Even though the island is effectively a series of smaller ones, as I wanted water to be only a few tens of meters from anywhere and no built up canals, it was important to make the whole area walkable for some game applications. I have been to many sims and not got a sense of real space as, and this contradicts what I said earlier, you are blocked from walking and only walking. It is possible to circumnavigate Esperance by foot and I have designed quite a few hidden valleys and caverns for simple quest games, especially around the LAMP (Laboratory for Advanced Media Production ‘– which I direct) mountain, breakout areas. There are many other aspects that one must consider when developing the areas around the island and these must fall into the mood category. The vegetation, environmental sounds or music, local props (waterfalls, fires) and of course thought about the composition and delineation of each space and how much it is removed from other spaces but still provide some island continuity.

AFTRS Island Second LifeIt has been fun starting this process from scratch and I am finding that that all the AFTRS students who have been initiated into the environment are getting very excited about the many and various aspects of it. I am excited to know what those being trained professionally in the craft of TV and film making (many who go on to win Oscars) can do with this environment, I wonder also how representational (like the TV studio set above) they will need it to be to create wonderful machinima rich with story. There are many other things we have planned for the world including script and story development through improvisation and indentity experimentation, set design, collaborative development of interactive 3D objects and environments, game narrative creation and sharing/hosting screening festivals, presentations and learning events – plus all the awareness raising around Australia’s premier media academy. As in any new form there are the early entrants who pioneer but then quickly those who can communicate narrative (linear and interactive) at a much higher level are tempted in when it reaches a level of maturity, second life is very close to being there.

AFTRS Island Second Life

I have tried so far in the initial phases to not borrow too heavily on either the real world or existing areas in SL. If you are any of the twelve thousand land owners in SL you will know how satisfying but fiddly it can be creating the spaces in our virtual world, the constant tweaking, going through endless modifications and alternate builds. One thing should pervade your thinking though, try to fight the need to fill in all the spaces and make the virtual world as over-built as our real one.

If you want to see more images and the build in progress visit this photo journal on the LAMP site.

Posted by Gary Hayes © 2006