Feb 05, 2016

The history of Barco Alchemy: two years of magic

Cinema 4 min read last updated on: May 22, 2018

In March 2014, Barco shipped the first units of its Barco Alchemy projectors with onboard ICMP (Integrated Cinema Media Processor). This media server for digital cinema had a lot of lofty ambitions right from the start. In this blog post, we’ll look back on the journey we’ve taken in these past 24 months − and on how the product has evolved from the new kid on the block to the most sold server in the industry.

The next logical step

The history of the ICMP has its roots in the cinema industry’s constant quest for better image quality, higher frame rates, and higher resolution. In the technical world of projectors and media servers, this comes down to more bandwidth for processing and transferring pixel data. This had already been the driving force in the migration from stand-alone servers, to IMBs (Integrated Media Blocks), to IMSs (Integrated Media Servers) in the 2005-2012 time frame. 

Around 2011-2012, Barco got together with its industry partners to see how a next step could be taken. At that moment, 4K content was limited to 30 fps, and real 4K 3D was not yet possible. At the same time, there was keen interest big from the creative industry to start working on higher frame rate 4K and combine 4K with 3D storytelling.

The stumbling block at that time − for DLP-based projectors, at least − was the architectural legacy: somehow, the projector world (Barco, Christie, NEC) had to connect to the server world (Doremi, GDC, Qube, Dolby, …). This translation or interface step was made by the so-called ICP (Integrated Cinema Processor) module. If we wanted to set a new standard, we’d have to work on this very boundary: to alter it; or even better, remove it. A full integration between server and projector was the next logical step. 

Predicting the future

At least: it was a logical next step from the outside. But once you start digging into the practicalities of such an integration, you realize how different these two worlds really are. Projector people tend to talk ‘lumens’ and ‘vertical sync’; while server people talk ‘CPL’ and ‘schedule’. Luckily (or not), Barco has all of this expertise in-house. We have been building digital projectors for over 30 years; and we’ve been in digital cinema since the very 1st screening. Plus, in 2010, we acquired the expertise of a large team that had been developing theater and screen management systems for many years. It seemed like the stars were aligned!
  

The development project started in 2012 with high ambitions: to be the most advanced and most future-proof media server in the industry. The only problem with being future-proof is that it’s hard to make predictions… especially about the future. Those early day discussions were strategic and tactical, but still hands-on. For example: “What format do we choose for our alternative content inputs?” HDMI is a typical video format; while Displayport is more a data format. On the other hand, Displayport 1.1a allows you to do 4K in a dual setup... Similar discussions took place regarding the integration of server and projector functionality: How far do you take this? How far do you take the user? 

Implementing market feedback

From a product development and engineering viewpoint, nothing is more fun than innovating and building new things. However, as the manufacturer with the biggest installed base in cinema, we cannot ignore the preferences and priorities of our 100,000+ users. By conducting surveys and interviews, we found out that they actually quite like that thin border. For them, it’s not necessarily a limiting border between technologies, but a practical separation between roles and functions: between a technical installer/service tech profile and a more operational projectionist profile. So we tuned our system architecture to the distinction that market feedback was making. 

By the beginning of 2014, we had fully passed our internal testing and validation as well as external certification (DCI-certification and some dozen others). We were ready to launch our product. Of course, the competition had not been sitting still during that period. So there we were, launching our brand-new server, and already we were in catch-up mode. Fortunately, we had a very enthusiastic team that kept on working very hard to add new features, improve performance, and implement market feedback. Using agile product development and scrum, we added new software versions at an incredible pace. Some of the things we added only in the past 12 months include: support for immersive audio, support for 3D on all alternative inputs, playback of 3 synchronized DCPs for Barco’s Escape format, ingest speeds improved by more than a factor of 4, …

Evolving to best-in-class

Today, 24 months after the launch, I am proud to say that we’ve evolved from the new kid on the block to a well-established and well-received product on the market. The vast majority of Barco projectors sold in the past year have been Barco Alchemy projectors, with ICMP on board. The total number sold in the past year puts us in at least the Top 3 of the most popular media servers for digital cinema. And above all: from the market feedback we get, our performance, reliability and stability are best-in-class. 

The product’s not finished, of course. It’s never finished − integrating with more and new devices in the ecosystem is always on our radar. As well as improving the user experience. And keeping up with new trends, both technical and operational, will be critical to holding onto our spot at the top. The Barco Alchemy team is ready to deliver some more magic in the next 24 months … and beyond!

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