NATO Reviews D-Cinema Requirements With Vendors

By J. Sperling Reich | January 29, 2009 7:22 pm PST

After the positive response the National Association of Theatre Owners received from their meeting last June with manufacturers and service providers to review their Digital Cinema System Requirements, they decided to hold another meeting last Friday in Burbank, CA to go over version 2.1.  Brigitte Buehlmann , NATO’s Industry Issues Liaison, organized the meeting which was moderated by Michael Karagosian, a NATO consultant who oversaw the drafting of the latest requirements document.  [Full Disclosure: I attended this meeting on behalf of my employer, DTS Digital Cinema.]

Version 2.1 of the Digital Cinema System Requirements was published in December of 2008, just ten months after version 2.0 was published and two years after version 1.0.  This is a much speedier turnaround then the nearly three years it took the studios to update their phonebook size DCI Specification from version 1.0 to version 1.2, the latter of which was released in March of 2008.  No doubt, the dialogue NATO and its members began with manufacturers and service providers back in June expedited their ability to put a little meat on the bones of the first version of their requirements.

Indeed, version 2.1 of NATO’s Digital Cinema Systems Requirements is 21 pages in length, up from 14 in the previous draft.  And while there are definitely remnants of version 1.0 in the document, it’s remarkable how different this latest draft is in certain areas from the one that preceded it.(Version 2.1 of NATO’s requirements document can be downloaded here.)  Some of the alterations include:

  • Dynamic downmixing and dynamic range control of audio was omitted and replaced with a verbiage on venue specific audio so that theatres that do not have 5.1 audio can convert multi-channel audio to the appropriate number of channels.
  • Additional info on show schedules and show playlists (SPL) which per previous version need to appear in a standardized and interchangeable XML format to help with interoperability.
  • More detail was provided on show playlist packs, or Pack Playlists (PPL), specifically on parent show playlists and child show playlists.
  • The point-of-sale (POS) interface has been expanded to include more data fields, including a version ID and booking ID number.
  • Within the System Logs section the verbiage on confirmation logs has been dropped though seems to be covered sufficiently in the Content Record and Show Record portions.
  • The Captioning section in version 1.0 was exchanged for Section 3 of the latest draft which details Disability Access.  Open captions is not touched on in the new version.
  • The Network Security section in the old draft has been transformed into Network and Other Communications.  The information on Facility List Messages (FLMs) which formerly appeared under the Content Security section has been moved to this re-labled section.

NATO obviously put a great deal of effort in revising version 2.1 of the requirements specifications, so it’s understandable that they wanted to highlight some of the changes in their meeting.  Karagosian started the day by discussing a topic near and dear to him; closed captions.  He  has helped push through specifications SMPTE 428-10 and 428-12.  What he really wanted to stress to equipment vendors and service providers in attendance was that exhibitors want the ability to use a wide range of captioning assisted listening devices, in addition to existing technologies such as WGBH’s Rear Window.  (USL, Inc. was in attendance to provide a demonstration of their latest closed caption technology which will be detailed in a future post).

Section 4 of the NATO requirements specifications deals with audio and seems to have been completely rewritten from the previous version.  Exhibitors are requiring that digital cinema servers now be able to identify audio on specific, labeled channels.  One audio requirement that left several equipment vendors scratching their heads was the request that cinema audio processors provide the ability to play a soundtrack in “bypass” mode in case of a sound system failure.  Some manufacturers don’t see how they can provide such a feature, for unlike 35mm film, which can always fall back to optical should digital audio equipment fail or lose power, there is no analog audio source in a digital cinema package.

NATO added very little in sections 5 and 6 of the document which deal with image and interoperability.  They simply requested that exhibitors have the ability to choose whichever projector lens they want and acknowledged that not all circuits will be capable of setting up their own web domains as facility identifiers.  A notable amount of time in the meeting was spent on Section 7, which details workflow automation.  This section wasn’t in the original NATO requirements document but seems to be rather important for exhibitors as it discusses the seamless automation of key delivery and management.

Michael Karagosian
Michael Karagosian

In discussing digital cinema workflow Karagosian explained, “We want a consistent and clear way of identifying a piece of content. Current suggestion is that the content be identified by globally unique V-ISAN number, but there is some question over whether this will work.”  Service providers and exhibitors both agreed that such a numbering system may not take into account the numerous versions that can exist for each film title, nor the numerous existing enterprise systems exhibitors have installed that would have to map to the V-ISAN number.

NATO concentrated on the speed at which digital content can be moved and ingested onto display systems in section 8 of version 2.1, which covers operations.  Exhibitors still want to be able to move content between screens in 15 minutes and if necessary load content onto a server so it can begin playing back immediately upon its arrival at a theatre. “That’s what this business model is built on.  In a movie theatre, with film, a platter can be moved in 15 minutes,” Karagosian pointed out.  “It’s about maximizing revenue.  One of the goals of digital cinema was that everybody hoped it would be able to do is move content freely.  Movies need to be rescheduled within 15 minutes.  That comes out of the real world and it emulates what we do in film.”

Vance Bowers, Goodrich Quality Theatre‘s IT manager presented all the changes from Section 9 of the document which focuses on theatre systems.  There weren’t a whole lot of changes in what NATO was trying to convey, though they expanded the show schedule and point of sale data fields used for integration and further explained show playlists (SPL) and pack playlists (PPL).  In an attempt to synchronize the advertised showtime to the point where trailers begin in an SPL, rather than when preshow advertisements begin, a variable referred to as the POSShowTime was created to refer to the showtime scheduled in the POS and eventually handed off to digital cinema servers.

NATO realizes that not all exhibitors will want a full blown theatre management system, so in section 10, which focuses on the TMS, they broke the core functionality of such systems into three main components: content management, key and data management, show and POS management.  The most important alterations in this section revolve around the introduction of a data and key management system (DKMS).  The DKMS adds functionality that will manage all the keys coming into the TMS and which are rerouted to players.  It is also meant to manage all the information on equipment within a theatre so that it can service requests for facility list messages (FLM).  In addition, the DKMS is supposed to notify managers, exhibitors and KDM distributors when all keys for all the screens at a theatre have arrived for a specific piece of content.  Should exceptions occur, the DKMS will alert theatre personnel about:

  • Orphan KDMs when keys arrive for which content can not be found.
  • KDMs that arrive for which equipment can not be found.
  • A showtime scheduled on the POS which does not match a playlist on the TMS within a certain number of hours before a screening.
  • The expiration state of all the keys in the theatre.

There is very little in sections 11 and 12 on system monitoring and presentation hardware that manufacturers and service providers aren’t already aware of, so Kirk Griffin, the director of engineering for Harkins Theatres, was able to present these bits relatively quickly before moving on to section 13 on system logs.  After some debate over maintenance and operation logs it was agreed that the subject would have to be revisited so more detail can be added.  The biggest alterations here pertained to the addition of a unique identifier for film as well as the number of logging requirements and exception reporting logs.

Jane Durment, the chief information officer for Marcus Theatres, walked attendees through sections 14, 15 and 16 on content security, network security and service requirements.   Most of the changes in this portion of the requirements revolve around trusted communications.  Due to the number of systems being connected within a theatre, and ultimately touching systems outside the theatre, exhibitors wanted to clarify how such communications will be achieved and who will be responsible for them.  It was agreed by all that anti-virus software alone will not suffice in protecting digital cinema equipment.  Mark Walker, Technicolor’s vice president of technology and engineering, felt that it was the exhibitor’s responsibility, through whatever integrator they might be working with, to design case by case inter-connected systems.

In the afternoon, Karagosian walked a tightrope as he asked the manufacturers and service providers, many of whom spend most of their time competing with one another, to reveal what projects they might be working on and what their current development priorities were.  Most deflected the question by saying development priorities would be set by theatre owners, though some acknowledged that they were concentrating efforts around show playlists, workflows and network ecosystems.

Acknowledging that NATO’s latest set of requirements is asking manufacturers for a lot without setting any timelines for the development of the technology, Karagosian turned to exhibitors who were a little more forthcoming in stating their priorities.  Stabilizing the hardware and software that makes digital cinema possible was discussed, though the two issues that seemed to be consistently raised were closed captioning and KDM automation.   “Captioning is huge.  It’s not a simple piece,” Bowers noted.  “Nobody wants to do open captioning.  Not on every movie in every house.  I would have a hard time thinking of anything that’s a higher priority than that.”

Griffin agreed, “Everything else should be sidelined until we get captions done.  Something has to happen on that right away.”

Overall the meeting seemed to be quite productive for all who attended and I wouldn’t be surprised if NATO continues to revise their requirements document to incorporate some of the thinking that came out of Friday’s meeting.  In an effort to keep the dialogue between exhibitors and vendors ongoing, Karagosian said NATO would hold a similar meeting sometime later this year, probably in early summer.

J. Sperling Reich