By John Carroll
Small Times Correspondent

Feb. 6, 2002 — Five years ago, a team of researchers at Texas Instruments unveiled a killer new technology called Digital Light Processing.

Using a chip packed with hundreds of thousands of tiny micromirrors, projectors armed with DLP technology could potentially turn the world’s multibillion-dollar movie industry into a digital star. Movies could be distributed digitally, instead of by churning out a huge pile of expensive film copies. And the picture on the silver screen would be more brilliant than ever, with colors enhanced and special effects heightened.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the tech revolution. The theater industry decided not to come. To date, only 16 theaters in the United States — 45 around the globe — have switched to DLP projection.

There are a number of factors behind the glacial response to DLP, said market analyst Marlene Bourne of Cahners In-Stat Group. “The machines are expensive and movie chains are in a tough spot (financially) right now,” Bourne said. “And it’s kind of tough to justify a new model when you have a proven method in place.”

It doesn’t help that there’s a marketing disconnect in the film business, said Richard Knipe, one of the original DLP team members at TI. In Hollywood, producers provide the film while theater owners around the country pay for the projection equipment. With DLP, they’d be saving Hollywood money on distribution while owners would have to foot the bill for the equipment upgrade.

Theater owners are still feeling burned by their initial introduction to digital sound systems. Several hit the market at once in the ’90s and caused a severe headache for theater owners when they didn’t work in unison. Now those same questions about standardization are coming back to haunt DLP.

TI, though, still sees plenty of glitter in DLP’s future. Recent price cuts and new upgrades have made DLP cheaper and more reliable, say the true believers. And, they say, it’s only a matter of time before the technology becomes standard equipment at every theater in the country.

Just don’t ask how much time.

“Who knows how fast the movie industry is going to convert from a technology they’ve used for 100 years to a brand new technology,” said Doug Darrow, business manager for TI’s commercial entertainment division.

A big plus: Everyone agrees that DLP technology has a lot to offer. The array of micromirrors used in a DLP system provides a picture remarkably cleaner than film. And it allows films to be distributed to theaters on DVDs or across satellites and broadband connections — eliminating hefty distribution costs.

DLP is also winning some heavyweight fans in the movie-making business. When the summer blockbuster “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” is released in May, it will boast of refined DLP imagery. And digital filmmakers behind recent releases like “Shrek” and “Monsters Inc.” are quick to swear by the up-and-coming digital process.

Audiences are giving their thumbs-up as well.

“We have surveyed audiences and they have a strong preference for the digital version,” said Rick King, a spokesman for AMC Entertainment, which operates 176 theaters. The company is enthusiastic as well, added King, who can point to seven AMC theaters that have undergone the digital conversion.

But don’t expect AMC to jump head first into DLP.

“I think there are concerns with the economic model and standardization,” King said. Prices need to come down more and standardization has to be established to reassure theater owners they can make a lasting investment with long-term rewards.

“People don’t want to buy something that may not be working in five years,” said Michael Mooney, the director of digital cinema at Christie Digital Systems in Cypress, Calif., which manufactures DLP projectors.

But rapid progress has been made, Mooney said. DLP theater systems that cost $250,000 to $300,000 two years ago have fallen to the $150,000 range. And with digital consistency, every screening is the same. Still, he added, as long as manufacturing is done in lots of ones, fives and tens, it’s hard to leverage major price reductions that make DLP more appealing to strapped theater owners.

DLP technology is gaining ground in post-production film work to refine the images that are produced. By playing the film through a DLP projector, film editors can adjust the colors on the film dailies “like real-time Photoshop,” said Knipe.

DLP is also burrowing its way into a number of consumer products like high-end portable projectors. At Dallas-based Teleportec, which sends 3-D images of people through broadband Internet connections, DLP has allowed the company to cut costs and sharpen their holographic images.

Currently, Knipe is working to bring DLP technology into mainstream optical networking. There’s a need to go in and “groom” the colors carried on optical fibers, said Knipe. “To do that they need a light switch precisely controlling the light. We build the world’s best modulator.”

TI still believes in the DLP revolution. Look for it in a theater near you — some day.

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