Canadian technology offers movie goers a moving (seat) experience

Hi-tech systems in theatres have generally focused on heightening sensations of sight and sound for movie goers – through technologies such as 3D or IMAX, for instance.

Now, thanks to the efforts of a Canadian company, a couple of other components will enhance the “immersive experience” at certain commercial theatres –touch and movement.

Audiences watching Universal Pictures’ Fast & Furious at select UltraStar Cinemas and Mann Theatres will experience this exciting new dimension of virtual reality. The theatres are located in Surprise, Arizona and Hollywood, Calif.

Seats in these theatres will be outfitted with a motion generation system that moves them back and forward, side to side, or up and down – all in synch with the on screen action.

The seats have been designed and built by Montreal-based D-BOX Technologies Inc.

And the system embedded in them does far more than just toss you around in your seat.

Physical motions are enhanced by subtle vibrations that create precise sensations based on a complex motion script.

A great deal of thought and effort goes into creating these motion routines.

“Our designers actually script all the motion effects based on the video part,” said Guy Marcoux, director of marketing for D-BOX. “They then sit and do the same process again, but they’ll encode all of the intelligent vibrations, now based on the audio track.”

Damon Rubio, vice-president of operations at UltraStar Cinemas, who participated in a demo of the seat, shared his experiences.

The demo had participants park themselves in a D-BOX seat, close their eyes, and listen to sounds of the ocean.

“You literally thought you were in a boat because it wasn’t jerking you around. It was just slowly, softly rocking,” he said.

The technology, Rubio noted, has great potential – that’s not restricted to providing additional effects for action movies.

“It isn’t necessarily about letting people know there’s motion. It’s about just complementing what’s on screen.”

That’s a marked improvement over some previous approaches to generating motion for movie goers that left Rubio unimpressed. For instance, he recalled one concept that “basically put giant subwoofers at the bottom of the seat.”

D-BOX has no official or direct competition in commercial theatres, according to Marcoux. “We’re creating a new standard,” he said.

Rubio echoes this view.

He said before D-BOX, other “motion” systems were “expensive and really hokey – amusement park ride stuff. No one wants to go and sit in a movie and literally just be tossed around.”

Philippe Roy, chief technology officer at D-BOX, likened the workflow for a D-BOX Motion Code designer to the process of creating sound for a movie.

“It’s done in post production by watching the movie frame by frame and adding layers of precise motion and vibration effects,” said Roy. “The number of effects that can be created is infinite, that’s why creativity really comes into play.”

D-Box motion designers kick-start the process by first getting the principal assets of a particular movie – picture and sound – from the studios, and installing them at their workstation.

“Of course, all of this needs to be done in a very secure environment due to content sensitivity,” Roy noted.

“Each motion editing studio is equipped with two seats embedded with our motion system, one placed right in front of the workstation for the motion designer to create the work, and a second one mostly used for the review by movie production-related people.”

Perched on this very special seat, the motion designer is “able to feel every effect he has created in real time with picture and sound,” said Roy.

Once multiple tracks of motion and vibration effects are created (more than 30 tracks in many cases), the down-mixing process begins – all the work to generate the D-BOX Motion Code.

With years of experience in the gaming and consumer electronics market, D-BOX is well positioned to find success in the commercial theatre space.

D-BOX Motion Code is already embedded in more than 850 movie releases on Blu-ray and DVD for use with home theatre chairs.

The system’s introduction to commercial theatre is currently limited to a pilot project with two theatre chains in the U.S.

Each chain – UltraStar Cinemas and Mann Theatres – will have a D-BOX MFX (motion effects) section in one of their auditoriums.

UltraStar has the largest install to date, with 22 seats at the UltraStar Surprise Pointe 14 in Surprise, Arizona. Mann’s installation is at the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood.

The surcharge for movie goers who want the D-BOX experience will be US$8 above normal admission prices, said Rubio. The pilot is scheduled to last one year, after which UltraStar will be in a better position to determine what value the investment brings.

“The chairs are very expensive and as an exhibitor, once we come out of the pilot program, we’re going to look carefully at the amount of business it brings,” said Rubio. “But I’m very optimistic it’s all going to work out.”

D-BOX’s Marcoux is also confident the technology will be a big draw for ticket sales. “All we hear about is 3D…but we think we can bring a very compelling immersive experience to moviegoers.”

But the pilot’s success also depends on the studios D-BOX works with. According to Rubio, D-BOX is hoping to provide one movie every couple months.

“The big driver is content,” said Rubio. He said if D-BOX can adhere to the bi-monthly schedule, his theatre “can look at expanding the pilot (launching in April) out to more auditoriums and more seats.”

D-BOX hopes to bring the experience to Canadians, but no arrangements have been made so far with Canadian theatre chains.

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