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Digital cinema is looking 'Up'

The latest digital-cinema technology from Sony and RealD creates smooth, sharp images with bright, saturated colors and good detail in both highlights and shadows.

Movie poster for Disney/Pixar Up
Disney/Pixar's latest film is being shown in 3D using state-of-the-art Sony projectors in some theaters. Disney/Pixar

I went to an opening-day screening of the new Disney/Pixar film "Up," on Friday. I had a great time and not just because of the movie. There was an interesting technology story, too.

The Camera 7 theater in the Silicon Valley city of Campbell recently installed four new digital cinema projectors. They're the best on the market today: Sony's SRXR220, which lists for about $200,000 with the usual required accessories.

Sony also has a slightly less expensive model, the SRXR210, for smaller screens. What puts these projectors ahead of the competition is their native resolution: 4,096 pixels x 2,160 pixels, a standard known as "4K." That's over four times as many pixels as HDTV, which displays 1,920 pixels x 1,080 pixels.

I wrote about 4K technology back in August 2007 ("After HDTV, what's next?") and predicted that "you'll be seeing it in theaters within the next few years." I'm pleased to say that 4K is ahead of that schedule.

I wrote that post after attending a screening of some of the earliest 4K content at the ACM Siggraph conference in Los Angeles, including "Crossing the Line," a short film by "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson. The Siggraph demonstration also used a Sony projector, the much smaller SRXT105.

I was amazed by the picture quality in that screening, and I'm even more impressed by what I saw from the newer SRXR220. As I wrote in 2007, these projectors create smooth, sharp images using LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) technology, which I think is inherently superior to TI's DLP (Digital Light Processing) micro-mirror chips, which are used in other digital-cinema projectors.

On Friday, we got to see more than just a movie, too. Sony has provided the Camera 7 with a bunch of PlayStation 3 game consoles and configured the projectors to display multiple games up on the big screen so that up to 64 people can play at the same time.

Before the movie, we got to see just one game, Sony's "Gran Turismo 5: Prologue," filling the whole screen. Coincidentally, that's my favorite game on the PS3 (though I must admit to limited experience with that platform since I don't own one), so I was happy with the choice.

Although the PS3's native output is limited to HD resolution, the image quality was very impressive. The movie itself was even better. I don't know what the movie's native resolution was, but it looked great, with bright, saturated colors and good detail in both highlights and shadows.

The movie was presented using RealD's 3D technology, re-branded as Disney Digital 3-D in the advertising for "Up," though the glasses we received were marked RealD as usual. Now that I've seen movies in state-of-the-art theaters using both RealD and Dolby 3D Digital Cinema, I think they're both fairly similar in overall quality.

While I'm on the subject, I'd like to make another comparison: between Sony's 4K technology and the new small-screen "IMAX Digital" theaters that are popping up around the country, generally as one or more screens out of several in a multiplex.

I've seen a couple of movies ("Watchmen" and "Star Trek") in IMAX Digital theaters now, and the quality didn't measure up to my expectations. According to the Wikipedia article on IMAX Digital, these theaters use a pair of HD-resolution (also called 2K) projectors--but I don't think this approach will produce better than HD-equivalent resolution. Two superimposed images can be brighter than one, but the resolution can't be twice as good as a single projector.

In my experience, IMAX Digital theaters fall short of the quality of these Sony 4K projectors...and, of course, they're vastly inferior to real IMAX theaters. Every time I've attended a showing in an IMAX Digital theater, I've heard other customers expressing their disappointment. I don't know why IMAX is diluting its brand this way.

Similarly, I don't know why Sony hasn't established a new brand for these 4K projectors. I know I'm going to be tracking the arrival of this technology in other Silicon Valley theaters, but Sony isn't helping.

Anyway, the new Sony 4K technology is out there. If you can find it, I bet you'll like it.