So What is DCI Anyway?

March 28, 2019 Joey Davis

Evidenced by the rise of luxury theaters, premium membership clubs, and more comprehensive theater amenities, customers have indicated they are willing to pay a higher price for an elevated moviegoing experience. The premium segment is the fastest growing portion of the overall cinema market, and while the industry has fixed many of the logistical issues that deterred customers, display performance has failed to keep up. Enter the Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLC, or DCI for short. If you work in either the cinema industry or the digital display industry, you have likely heard the DCI acronym floating around but for the unfamiliar, DCI is a united endeavor from several of Hollywood’s biggest studios, aided by thought leaders from the moviemaking side and technical experts from the technology side. Their collective goal is to standardize digital cinema requirements so that content is created and displayed uniformly and at as high a level as possible. The intimate tether between dominant film studios and DCI has made conformance to DCI specifications a virtual (though still technically voluntary) requirement. Their message is clear: This is the direction cinema is going, it’s time to get on board.

An Outline of Current Specifications

Current DCI specifications give guidance on creating a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) from a raw collection of files known as the Digital Cinema Distribution Master (DCDM), as well as the specifics of its content protection, encryption, and forensic marking. Specifications also establish standards for the decoder requirements and the film presentation environment itself, such as ambient light levels, pixel aspect and shape, image luminance, and white point chromaticity. This industry jargon may seem convoluted, but that’s precisely why DCI has established such comprehensive standards; both the industry and the technology are complex and total uniformity requires painstaking attention to detail.

What Will New Specs Look Like?

The latest update in draft specifications, “DCIx,” aims to account for new visual capabilities of emissive LED displays. These specifications include more challenging targets for peak luminance, uniformity, color space, diffused and spectral reflectivity, contrast ratio, and a range of other performance metrics. While these listed metrics focus mostly on visual output, just 35% of DCI compliance covers image quality. The remainder governs how content is secured and transferred. When movie data is sent from the digital vaults where studios store their films, it is received by media blocks that are a secure physical part of whatever device plays the film, be it a projector or an LED display. There are only a handful of companies manufacturing these blocks right now and they too are subject to DCI compliance testing. All this testing for all these factors can be a drag on progress, but it is imperative to the initiative’s greater mission that cinema quality is never compromised. After all, improving cinema quality is basically the entire point of the whole enterprise. Though so far the going has been slow, industry insiders forecast that the digital cinema market will begin to explode as the industry shifts. It may take a while, but DCI exists not simply to improve cinema right now but also to expand where cinema can go in the future. To learn more about digital cinema and the growing presence of LED within that sphere, check out some of our writing on the subject here.

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