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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 11:51 GMT
MP3 engineers tackle digital cinema
Eye circuit board, Eyewire
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By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble
at CeBIT 2002 in Hanover
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The German research society which came up with the MP3 format for music has turned its sights on making the filmmaking business go digital.

"Our aim is to implement a complete digital processing chain for cinema, from the camera via production, post production, distribution and screening," the Fraunhofer Society's Dr Siegfried Foessel told BBC News Online at the CeBIT fair in Hanover.

Fraunhofer engineers are experts in data compression, handy for making music files portable on the internet and essential for dealing with the giant volumes of data generated by film.

But the challenge they face extends further - to replicating the exceptional range of light captured by conventional cinema film and taking 3D sound to an entirely new level.

The Fraunhofer Society is showcasing its latest technology at the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover in Germany.

Camera technology

Modern digital video cameras simply cannot capture the dynamics and subtlety of cinema lighting, or reproduce the high resolution of cinema film.

Even cameras built for high-definition television cannot match the quality of chemically processed analogue film.

So Fraunhofer engineers are working on new cameras which use complementary metal oxide silicon (CMOS) sensors instead of the usual charge-coupled devices (CCDs).

They are working, too, to tackle the problem of shifting giant volumes of data around.

Data mountains

"Even with digital video, which is a much lower resolution than cinema, you'd need 670 gigabytes of data for a 90-minute film," Dr Foessel said.

That volume of data would fill a thousand CD-Roms.

At full cinema quality, Fraunhofer engineers estimate they would need to handle five gigabits of data every second.

The answer is clearly to come up with a compression scheme to describe the high quality cinema images in a more efficient way, just as MP3 does for music.

"We want to take the existing Jpeg2000 coding process and adapt it for cinema applications," Dr Foessel said.

His colleagues aim to cut the volume of data in real time by at least 90% and then store the film on a laptop-like device.

Hi-fi for all

Reworking the whole cinema process is providing opportunities for better sound, too.

"We are moving on from things like Dolby 5.1 sound to a situation where you have hundreds of loudspeakers in an auditorium.

"Then we can create a kind of individual sound experience for each cinemagoer," said Dr Foessel.

"We can create a much better three-dimensional sound stage and, for instance, make individual instruments sound like they are coming from behind the projection screen."

Demonstration cinema

Existing 3D sound systems work well for cinemagoers sitting within a relatively small optimal zone but can suffer quality losses outside that zone.

The digital cinema team had already built a demonstration auditorium, he added.

The Fraunhofer Society is a state and industry-backed research consortium named after the 19th Century optical instrument inventor Joseph von Fraunhofer and employs about 9,000 people.

Its digital cinema technology is on display at the CeBIT fair until Wednesday in Hall 11, stands A10-14.

BBC News Interactive reports from the CeBIT technology fair in Hanover

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