For over a century, movie projector technology remained relatively unchanged: Frames of film, spun in front of a bright lamp to project an image onto a screen. More recently, though, projection has taken quantum leaps forward, including the arrival of digital projection in 1999, and in the last few years, laser light-powered projectors.
Companies like Dolby and IMAX are using new laser projectors to create imaging that’s multiple times brighter than what you’ll find in a standard theater and, just as importantly, much darker too, allowing new theaters to achieve breathtaking contrast.
That wasn’t good enough for the folks at Samsung, though. With relatively little fanfare, the TV titan has unveiled a revolutionary new way to make movie magic, without the need for projectors at all. Samsung calls its new creation “Onyx,” and it’s poised to change everything we know about going to the movies.
No projector, no problem
Named after the jet-black jewel, Onyx is a giant, 34-foot screen that uses LEDs to display perfect black levels, intense brightness, and brilliant color for unprecedented cinematic contrast. How bright, you ask? At 146 foot-lamberts (a measurement used to express luminance), Samsung’s new screen is 10 times brighter than standard cinema projectors. Even spectacular new Christie laser projectors in Dolby’s crown-jewel theater (which we called the best movie theater on earth) manage to reach just 38 foot-lamberts.
The Onyx offers 4K resolution, as well as support for 2D, 3D, and High Dynamic Range.
Like Dolby’s new projectors, the Onyx also offers 4K resolution (most standard projectors top out at 2K resolution), as well as the ability to support 2D, 3D, and High Dynamic Range content for impressive versatility. Better contrast and a crisper image aren’t the only reasons Samsung thinks its new creation is the future of cinema, either.
Ditching the projector comes with multiple advantages. Without the need for a projection room or any of the equipment in it, new theaters could save time, space, and money. Since the Onyx makes its own picture, there’s no need for line-of-sight from the back of the room, meaning seats can be built higher and steeper in the stadium format. That could mean fewer instances of your view being blocked by the big-head in front of you, and for theater owners, more space to pack in audiences.
The Onyx is also much less susceptible to ambient light than projector screens – much like your LED TV screen at home. The screen itself is built with materials designed to block reflection, allowing for multiple use cases. For instance, dining theaters could potentially allow drink and food service throughout a film’s presentation, using minimal ambient lighting so waiters wouldn’t trip over you with a tray of food and drinks.
An Onyx-powered theater could also be better for applications outside the cinema realm, such as e-sports, where the ambient light from laptops would otherwise create distractions and make for a poorer viewing experience.
Not your father’s LED
About now, you may be asking yourself, “With so many potential disadvantages, why have theaters relied so long on projectors?” Well, there’s a reason the Onyx’s big-screen cinema tech hasn’t existed until very recently.
Onyx maintains quality from virtually any angle.
As touched on above, Samsung’s new mega screen is the result of the company’s investment in new LED technology, and it works quite differently than the LED screen in your TV set at home.
While traditional LED screens only use LEDs to illuminate LCD panels from behind to create an image, the Onyx uses LEDs as individual pixels. In other words, as with OLED screens, each pixel in the Onyx turns on and off on command. This is what allows the screen to achieve perfect black levels, as each pixel can be completely lit or extinguished, depending on what the image calls for. In addition, unlike traditional LED TVs with LCD panels in them, the Onyx maintains picture quality from virtually any angle – no “sweet spot” here.
You may be wondering why we don’t have such displays in our homes right now, and that comes down to scale. Since the Onyx is so big, you can’t see the individual LEDs because the screen is huge, and you are seated at a distance. At home, you’d be too close to a screen that’s too small for good resolution and would see the individual pixels anyway.
Not to worry, though, Samsung is working on MicroLED, a miniaturized version of this emissive display tech that could compete with OLED TVs in terms of picture quality and thin panels. We saw the first inkling of this at CES when Samsung introduced The Wall TV.
As you might guess, for more reasons than we can count, it would be pretty impractical to build a 34-Foot TV screen out of a single sheet of glass or plastic. “Hey Frank, the screen went out, better get the fork lift!”
Speakers can’t be placed directly behind the screen for audio anchored to the picture, but Samsung has a solution for that.
Like previous commercial displays, Samsung’s new displays don’t rely on a singular screen, but a patchwork of smaller panels sewn together to create a massive screen. The panels are interchangeable, and in a theater application, would ship with multiple backups, allowing theaters to swap out dead panels as they inevitably go bad, and send the damaged panels back to Samsung (or perhaps a third-party) for repair. So no matter what, the show will go on.
What’s more, these LED display panels are designed to last longer than traditional projector bulbs, potentially saving money on bulb replacement over time.
Where do we put the soundbar?
Of course, unlike traditional movie screens, the Onyx won’t allow for speakers to be placed directly behind the screen for audio anchored to the picture, but Samsung has a solution for that, too.
With the purchase of Harman International last year, Samsung acquired a host of major audio brands, including JBL Professional, which the company utilized to create a workable solution to the Onyx’s sonic conundrum. JBL’s new cinema audio system, aptly dubbed Onyx sound, uses mounted speakers above the screen along with special processing which allow for impressive accuracy and an expanded sweet spot that corresponds to the image on screen.
The top-mounted speakers are supplemented, of course, by surround speakers throughout the theater to potentially allow for 3D or object-based sound technologies like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
How can I see it?
We don’t have any word yet as to just when Onyx screens will come to a theater near you, but even before they land in your local cineplex, Samsung is hoping to make its new screens accessible to all. Well, to all who have big pockets, that is.
We’ll have to wait and see if Samsung can scale up production on its new monster screen to land in theaters across the country at a price that won’t send ticket buyers running for the hills. And while laser projection may not currently be able to match the contrast of Samsung’s new displays, as we can attest, Dolby Cinema’s laser projection is a dazzling experience, and one that has at least one very clear advantage over the Onyx at present: It’s already in theaters.
Samsung will have a long hill to climb before Onyx becomes a standard technology in theaters.
Dolby Cinema technology has grown from being utilized in a handful of showcase theaters just a few years ago to over 150 of theaters at home and abroad, and the company has plans with theaters like AMC Theaters,China’s Wanda theater group, and others overseas for future rollouts as well.
IMAX’s laser projection technology is hot on Dolby’s heels, and both companies have in-roads in the incestuous theater industry that Samsung simply can’t match at present. Even if the Onyx can be offered for the same or similar pricing to laser-projection theaters (let alone standard digital-projection theaters), it will have a long hill to climb before it becomes a standard technology.
That said, while theaters are still making plenty of money in spite of a powerful cocktail of streaming convenience and revolutionary advancements in home theater gear, the big-chain theater conglomerates are always chasing new ways to get people to come out for the weekend blockbuster. Samsung’s Onyx may well be the next big thing.
David Cogen — a regular contributor here at Digital Trends — runs TheUnlockr.com, a popular tech blog that focuses on tech news, tips and tricks, and the latest tech. You can also find him over at Twitter discussing the latest tech trends.
Update: Added more information via Dolby Laboratories to clarify that Dolby Cinema is now in over 150 theaters at home and overseas.