A 270-degree, wraparound triple-screen theatre system has just begun rolling out to select US cinemas — only five, in fact — with hopes of delivering an immersive movie-going experience that succeeds where 3D has so miserably failed. I got a sneak peak at the new technology recently and it's, um, really something. I'm just not really sure what that is.
The Barco Escape system, designed by Red Camera cofounder Ted Schilowitz, takes the standard cinematic experience and triples it, angling two more screens off the sides of the primary screen and projecting additional scenery onto them with supplemental projectors.
"It's a very interesting time for us to look at what cinema-making can be and to look at the other choices are available," Schilowitz told Gizmodo.
For the demo, Schilowitz screened a short selection of content—from rave footage to movie trailers to the new 20th Century Fox flick, Maze Runner,. The current experience is far from perfect. The gap between screens led to thick black bars segmenting the action, which is OK if you're showing three separate images but really distracting if you're doing a single wraparound shot. And the additional screen space didn't often add much visual information, just felt a lot like watching a very large 21:9 monitor.
The most frustrating part was that the quality and appearance of the onscreen action changes considerably depending on where you sit, not unlike the minuscule sweet spot in 3D theatres. You've got to sit dead-centre to get the full effect. The side screens always seemed slightly out of focus, which is cool when you're focusing only on the centre screen — it resembles normal peripheral vision — but is disconcerting when looking directly at the side screens.
When I asked about whether cinemas would require added retrofitting to accommodate the system, Schilowitz replied, "Now, in each theatre, there's slightly different geometries — different sizes and different ways to make this work...In some theatres that side screens are slightly bigger or smaller but eventually we'll get to a sort of universal fit. And a generation or two from now, it [the screen array] will likely be a big seamless curve."
The system is in development, mind you, which is why the experience was rather underwhelming. Still, Barco Escape holds a great deal of promise. Currently, the screens have been installed in five cinemas across the country with plans to expand worldwide over the next nine months, though Schilowitz expects the format to really take off in the next 18 to 24 months, once the technology further matures.
Should they get the screen setup straightened out — perhaps using a single, angular screen rather than three individual — and get more content creators onboard with the system, this could easily give 3D a run for its money. It may even lure the American public away from their home entertainment systems and back into cinemas.