Neil Peart

AndyO Blog

Saturday, September 19, 2009

IMAX 3-D digital films: Upsell illusion

I just went to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with the kids today at the Regal Thornton Place theater in IMAX 3-D digital. The total cost for the matinee show (11:40 am) was $40.50! That's $15.50 for me (instead of the usual $8.50 matinee price) and $12.50 for each kid.

Stepping into the IMAX auditorium eased my buyer's remorse somewhat. The screen reaches from floor to ceiling and wall to wall -- not as big as the curved Boeing IMAX theater at Seattle Center, but certainly bigger than the average screen.

When the film started, the sound system thundered like a freight train, and the image quality was sharp and vibrant. But then I noticed something that I'd noticed in two other IMAX films, Up and Night at the Museum 2:

The image didn't fill the entire screen.

Much like watching a 16:9 widescreen movie on a TV, there were black "bars" across the bottom and the top of the screen:


So, how is this much different than a regular movie image? Why am I paying almost twice as much just because the screen is large?

After doing a little research, I found that a firestorm erupted in May 2009 by actor/comedian Aziz Ansari after he saw the new Star Trek movie on a screen that he didn't consider to be of proper IMAX size. (Turns out, most people think this is around 72 feet high.)

According to IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond in a Wired article, the screen size isn't the only thing that makes IMAX what it is:

IMAX means the most immersive film experience on the planet. 3-D is going to be more obvious to you in IMAX. And in 2-D, IMAX means a special sound system. It means special treatment of the film so that when Star Trek is shown in an IMAX theater, it goes through a digital process where we up-res the movie so there's more brightness and more contrast.

And with the screen part of it: In all of these multiplexes, IMAX is the biggest screen. But it's not only screen size. There's something called "perceived screen size," which involves the relationship of the viewer to the screen. If you're in the first row, that screen is going to look a hell of a lot bigger to you than if you're in the 30th row. We typically take out the first four rows of seats in a theater and move the screen forward so it's a lot farther forward in an IMAX theater. Also, the screen goes floor to ceiling, wall to wall. By bringing a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screen forward toward the audience, the viewer has the perception that the screen is larger than just the physical size.

I buy that there's a different process for converting a film for IMAX and that the sound system is better. But my beef is that the screen size is large but the movie isn't filling that screen. Well, then, I must be seeing a much better image resolution.

It turns out the image resolution might be only slightly better.

The IMAX digital film is created by using two Christie 2K resolution digital projectors. According to Wikipedia, "the two 2K images are projected over each other, producing an image that is potentially of a slightly higher resolution than common 2K digital cinema."

So, if the screen isn't larger, then you're not really getting much value for your expensive ticket -- just an image that is potentially of a slightly higher resolution. But I thought the reason for paying for an IMAX version of the film is so you can have the most immersive, amazing experience in a movie theater. Turns out it's not much different than going to the non-IMAX or 2D version of the film -- at least in some theaters.

Then what's going on here? Like many things in life, it's about money.

Let's take a look at The Dark Knight. $55 million of the $1 billion the film earned worldwide (18%) was from IMAX theaters. Without those "premium" tickets, the film takes in less money, the studio execs get smaller bonuses, the theater chains can't add more IMAX theaters, etc.

But the real crime with the smaller IMAX screens or the reduced projection size on a large screen is that the average moviegoer isn't even aware (at least consciously). They're paying extra for the IMAX brand -- and not really getting their money's worth.

So, as I see it IMAX has three problems (and to their credit, they're looking into fixing the branding problem now):

  1. Not all IMAX screens are equal in size.
  2. Not all IMAX screens are equal in resolution (digital vs. 70mm).
  3. The projection image size of the IMAX film doesn't always take up the entire screen size -- which brings us back to #1.

If you want to know which IMAX screens are the smaller size, here's a handy map:

View IMAX or LIEMAX? in a larger map

If you're interested in reading some other articles about this issue, see the following:

Roger Ebert's Q&A on IMAX (published before Aziz Ansari's blog)

LFexaminer: Is IMAX the next "New Coke"?

LFexaminer: Links to IMAX controversy articles

Variety: IMAX responds to screen size critics

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posted by AndyO @ 11:41 PM   1 comments links to this post

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama's top-secret phone

Update -- 2/2/09: According to Computerworld, President Obama has not divulged whether he's still using a BlackBerry. BlackBerry-gate continues.


According to CNET, President-elect Obama is switching from his beloved Blackberry to a General Dynamics-built, super-secure Sectera Edge. Oh, and it's running Windows Mobile (uh-oh -- here comes Blackberry-gate, just like Zunegate). Check this thing out.

Sectera Edge

Like what you see? Pick one up for only $3,350.

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posted by AndyO @ 12:41 AM   0 comments links to this post

Monday, September 01, 2008

The PZEV conspiracy

The other day, as I was dropping off my son at his day care, I saw a Subaru Outback with a PZEV logo that got my attention. It looked like this:


When I got out, and looked more closely, I saw PZEV stood for "Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle." I thought this was some kind of joke -- something you might see on a fake Saturday Night Live advertisement. But it's no joke: I looked it up, and it appears that PZEV cars really do release very little hydrocarbon emissions into the atmosphere.

How little? According to an MSN article I read, Dirty Secret: Green Cars Automakers Won't Sell You, you release more hydrocarbons by mowing your lawn in one hour than you do driving 2000 miles in a PZEV car.

If you're like me, you probably just said "Wow!" The next logical question is, "Where can I buy one of these cars?" If you live New York, California, or six other Northeast states, you can go buy one right now. If not, you're out of luck. As the article states:

"Not only can't you buy one, but the government says it's currently illegal for automakers to sell these green cars outside of the special states. Under terms of the Clean Air Act--in the kind of delicious irony only our government can pull off--anyone (dealer, consumer, automaker) involved in an out-of-bounds PZEV sale could be subject to civil fines of up to $27,500. Volvo sent its dealers a memo alerting them to this fact, noting that its greenest S40 and V50 models were only for the special states."

That's right folks. You can't buy a car that's going to help the planet. Here's the reason (from Wikipedia) with the red text emphasized by me:

The reasoning is surmised that while modifications only cost $200 for the consumer, it costs as much as $1,500 for the automaker. If the car companies passed on the entire expense, it could hinder sales and slow the automaker's compliance with ultra-low-emission laws.

It seems like this reason is designed to, perhaps, protect the American auto manufacturers. But that's only the partial reason.

A blog from Edmunds.com explains that "politics and parsimony" have collided to make this mess:

The politics are regulatory. The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn't have a PZEV category of its own, but won�t recognize the California rating, which can be applied only there and in the five states -- Oregon, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine -- that have adopted California emissions standards.  No regulatory agency likes to hand any of its power over to another.

The parsimony is corporate. Automakers spend about $100,000 to get a model certified as a PZEV under California Air Resources Board  rules. They would have to spend another $100,000 per model to get them cleared by the EPA, which insists on issuing its own certification even though it acknowledges that the cars are cleaner than required by the most stringent federal standard.

So whenever you read about those asinine bureaucratic schemes in China or Russia or Africa, you can feel good that the United States also participates in the same stupidity.

I for one will sleep better at night. And continue to drive my dirty Subaru Outback.

Dirty Secret: Green Cars Automakers Won't Sell You - MSN Autos


posted by AndyO @ 11:35 PM   1 comments links to this post

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Digital Movie Download War

Blu-ray DiscNow that Blu-ray has won the battle for high-definition discs, we can all go out and buy Blu-ray players and feel content with our purchases, right? That's what Sony would like you to believe. There are two problems with this:

  • Blu-ray players are too expensive (most over $300)
  • Many current Blu-ray players don't support Profile 2.0, so they're already obsolete (If you don't believe me, see this CNET post.)

There's also a secondary point about high-definition content. Most people don't care about it right now. 

Because I don't think Blu-ray will offer enough of an incentive to drop the good old DVD player, my prediction is that digital movie downloads will become the format of choice. I know, you might be thinking that a lot of people still want to drive down to BestBuy on Tuesday to pick up the latest DVD release and hold the shiny disc in their hands. But then I would remind you that people said the same thing about music CDs.

I've started to try out different digital movie download and streaming services. While I don't think all of them offer the average consumer the ideal experience, I think you're going to see huge advances in the next year that will make it easier.

Here are the services I've researched (or tried out myself):

Microsoft and the Xbox 360

When HD-DVD lost the HD battle, it was a direct blow to Microsoft. The company's technology was embedded in HD-DVD technology. However, Microsoft is also one of the first companies to start renting HD digital movies over its Xbox 360 system.

The good: I own an Xbox 360, and renting movies using the Xbox Marketplace is a breeze. You add "Microsoft Points" to your account and go buy or rent whatever you want. Once you rent an HD movie, you can start watching it in 10-15 minutes. The great thing about the Xbox system is you can go play a game while you wait. 

The bad: So far, the movie selection isn't as deep as I'd like to see. Plus, searching for a movie isn't as easy as it is using a computer. Xbox 360 Elite Pro bundle starts at around $500, so it's not cheap at this point. Once you start the movie, you have 24 hours to watch it--which can be too short. But this is standard with most digital downloads.

Digital Cable and DirectTV (satellite)

Cable has come a long way in the past 10 years. Not only can you watch HD content on your new LCD or Plasma TV, but you can watch it when you want. If any group is poised to take advantage of a new digital rental model, cable and satellite companies are probably in the best position.

The good: Familiar set-top box model. No computer needed. Additional services, including Internet, available as a bundle.

The bad: High cost per month. Limited selection of movies per month, depending on what the cable or satellite company makes available.


The Netflix Watch Now feature, which allows you to stream movies over your computer, is top-notch. They've continued adding titles, including entire seasons of hit shows. I watched the first season of Heroes using this technology.

The good: Unlimited viewing of 7000 titles. Movies start in about 30 seconds. DVD-quality is acceptable on an HD TV.

The bad: No HD Watch Now feature yet. Computer required.

Rumors: Being able to watch movies through Netflix on your Xbox 360.

Apple TV 2.0

I don't know much about this offering, having never used it myself -- but after reading this detailed review complete with side-by-side image comparisons, it seems like it's pretty good. CNET also liked it.

The good: Movies from every major Hollywood studio. HD available for most new titles. Integrated Podcasts and YouTube.

The bad: $229 for a stand-alone device (too much for some people). Doesn't work with older TVs that aren't widescreen.


I've watched one CinemaNow movie through my Xbox 360. The way this works is you download the movie to your PC, and then you can stream it over the Xbox.

The good: Large movie selection.

The bad: No HD options, except for a few titles that you can buy. The movie that I downloaded and watched through my Xbox 360 didn't look good enough on my HD TV.

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posted by AndyO @ 6:19 PM   2 comments links to this post