“Folded Space” Squeezes More Resolution into a Blu-ray Image

Constant Image Height projection may still be a small niche within the home theater hobby, but its advocates (myself included) are passionate about the benefits of a proper “scope” presentation for movies on a 2.35:1 screen. One potential drawback of this practice, however, is the limited resolution available on a letterboxed Blu-ray disc. A new process called Folded Space may provide a solution to this problem by “hiding” additional pixels within the video image.

In order to save time, rather than explain the concept of Constant Image Height (“CIH”) display here, I’ll direct readers back to a tutorial on the subject that I wrote a few years ago. Long story short: A movie with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio is designed to be displayed larger and wider than a movie (or TV show) with a narrower 1.85:1 or 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but our current 16:9 HDTV standard reverses that dynamic. On most home theater screens today, your typical episode of ‘Two and a Half Men’ occupies more screen real estate and is more immersive than any of the ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, and that just seems like a crime. CIH display restores both types of content to their intended perspective.

Unfortunately, in a lack of foresight, the developers of the Blu-ray format failed to take the needs of CIH viewers into account back in the day. Blu-ray discs are encoded with a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:9. (Technically, a small handful of discs [mostly porn] may be encoded at only 1280×720 resolution, but that also comes to a 16:9 ratio.) If a particular movie has a photographic aspect ratio other than 16:9, it will be authored with black bars around the image (either letterbox bars above and below, or pillarbox bars on the sides) to buffer it within the 16:9 frame. Thus, a 2.35:1 movie only uses approximately 1920×810 of the available pixels, and the rest are wasted on the empty letterbox bars.

CIH projection viewers currently have two options to deal with this: 1) Zoom the image to fill the width of the 2.35:1 screen, and let the letterbox bars spill off the top and bottom. Or, 2) Add an anamorphic lens in front of the projector, which will horizontally stretch the picture to fill the screen width, and then use a video processor (or the CIH mode in many modern projectors) to crop off the letterbox bars and scale the image to fill the vertical height.

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. Although the scaling/lens option will technically utilize all 1920×1080 of the display’s pixels, the additional pixels are interpolated, not true picture detail.

Unlike the DVD format, which was designed to accommodate two different display ratios (4:3 and 16:9), Blu-ray offers no provision for anamorphic enhancement on movie discs. CIH users have advocated for the addition of 21:9 enhancement, but a lack of backwards compatibility in existing Blu-ray hardware has made that seem very unlikely – until now.

Folded Space is a division of Panamorph, Inc., a manufacturer of anamorphic lens attachments for home theater projectors. In an attempt to improve the resolution of scope format movies on Blu-ray, the company has developed a new technology called Multi-Format Encoding (or “MFE”) that it claims can be authored onto Blu-ray discs so that a single disc will output video in any of four different playback qualities:

  • Standard letterbox format (1920×810 active resolution, plus letterbox bars) for use on any current display and Blu-ray player.
  • Anamorphically-enhanced full resolution 1920×1080, for use with projectors and anamorphic lenses.
  • Enhanced resolution 2560×1080, for use on special 21:9 format HDTVs. (Philips has a set like this for sale in Europe, and Vizio has promised and delayed domestic models as well.)
  • Cropped full-screen 16:9 (1920×1080) for philistines who demand that.

How does it work? According to the press release:

Folded Space’s software employs proprietary algorithms to generate and store additional resolution which is hidden within the black bars above and below the letterboxed image of the movie. This new encoding approach allows Blu-ray players and similar HD devices with Folded Space decoding algorithms to play MFE content in three additional resolution modes with no black letterbox bars…

In all cases, the decoded content provides a true 33% increase in actual resolution while the enhanced 2560 mode extends this increase to approximately 50% using new estimation algorithms. MFE content is playable on existing devices providing a high quality letterbox version of the movie without requiring the decoding algorithms.

I glean from this the following points:

  1. MFE discs will be backwards compatible with any current Blu-ray player, for which they will output standard 16:9 letterboxed video.
  2. You will need a special MFE-enhanced Blu-ray player to benefit from the other three playback modes. (Could existing players be upgraded via firmware? That’s an open question, but I expect probably not many.)
  3. The additional pixels for anamorphically-enhanced 1920×1080 represent true picture detail that’s hidden in the letterbox space, and can be inserted into the image upon playback.
  4. The other 691,200 pixels for 2560×1080 playback will be interpolated, not true picture detail.

Naturally, in order for this to work, movie studios will need to author new Blu-ray discs in MFE format from higher-resolution sources (presumably downconverted 4k masters?), and hardware manufacturers will need to integrate the feature into Blu-ray players. How long it will take for Folded Space to line up those strategic partnerships, and how well will the process really work? Those answers remain to be seen. We may still be a ways out from having live samples to test, but at the very least, this sounds like a promising development.

[Source: Folded Space]


  1. JM

    Have you had a chance to check out Sony’s 4K projector, VPL-VW1000ES?

    With a resolution of 4096×2160, and excellent upconversion, won’t 4K simply kill “Folded Space” before it even comes to market?

    Sony says the ideal 4K viewing distance for a 110″ screen is 8’…

    • Jason

      4K on a 110″ screen at 8 feet is mighty close.

      I have a 16:9 110″ screen and sit a little over 10.5 feet away from it. Any closer and I’d feel like I was in the front row of a megaplex. no bueno.

      Not to mention that 4K and 8K will just be pipe dreams for at least another 10 years.

      • JM

        LG is releasing a 4K OLED in 2013.

        By 2014, they expect OLEDs to be only 1.5x the price of LEDs.

        By 2015, they forecast 50% of their sales will be 4K OLEDs.

        I would not be surprised if the PS4 released in 2013 with 4K blu-ray.

        • William Henley

          It was my understanding that they were just going to work on a standard for 4k and 8k this year. I guess its plausable that Sony could release the PS4 with support for 4k and 8k, but it may be a bit of overkill for the time being, and don’t really see studios releasing stuff at this resolution for a while. Unless these discs are backwards compatable with the Blu-Ray standard, you are going to have an extreamely niche market, until 80 and 100+ inch displays fall below $2k.

          I am with Jason – while early sets are already starting to trickle out, they are ungodly expensive. 4k projectors (from what I have seen) are actually cheaper than 4k screens, but are still expensive, and then the number of people who uses projectors is relatively small compared to other display types.

          Folded Space is a great idea, because it gives extra resolution to the picture while still being backwards compatable. The idea of being able to fill a 16×9 screen is going to be popular with MANY consumers. It seems like an excellent idea to please just about everyone. If studios are smart, they will jump on this – they will please the CIH guys, the people with 16×9 displays who want stuff at the correct aspects, and the people who just want to fill their screens. Folded Space sounds like a win-win to me.

  2. August Lehe

    Bravo, Josh! And here I thought you were just one of those ‘art of the cinema’ guys that Orson Welles despised. PULEEZE keep us posted. Since I’m starting over with my display hardware in January, I’ll be watching. I just hope it won’t cost thousands to upgrade 2.35:1 so it offers detail like 1.85 or 2:1. Maybe?

  3. Drew

    Yes, 4K on a 110″ screen from 8′ away is a ridiculous concept!

    My screen is about 116″ and I sit about 10′ away. I would actually like to be further back, and would never sit closer than that, and I’m watching 1080P!

    Ideal seating distance for 4K on a 110″ screen is would have to be roughly 15′ or more.

    Furthermore, I hate to break it to you, Jane, but it’s going to be quite a while longer than you think before we have a new 4K format saturating the market with any significance.

  4. Drew

    Sony has already publicly stated that they will not be releasing a PS4 any time in the near future.

    4K OLED sets are intended to drive the market. We will all be watching upconverted 1080i television programs, and 1080P blu-rays on our 4K OLEDs and projectors for quite a while before a new 4K or 8K format comes out.

    • JM

      Sony is prepping the PS4 for 2013, says the Wall Street Journal yesterday.

      I’m not persuaded that 8K/4K will ever go mass market.

      Fuck the mass market. They buy 1080p Vizios to watch dvds stretched.

      I think we should look at the ultra-hd format as the next laserdisc.

      An elite format for an enthusiast demographic.

      20 million US households have an income over $100K per year.

      If the entire 4K ecosystem came out next year, would you buy in?

  5. Drew

    Jane, I’m as optimistic as anyone that a new format will eventually replace blu-ray as the standard. However, what you always seem to fail to grasp is the fact that blu-ray has been out for 7 years now, and still hasn’t even achieved 50% market saturation. This means that 7 years after the debut of our new format standard, the majority of consumers are still primarily watching DVDs. This can’t be overlooked! Sure, the HD DVD format war is perhaps partially responsible, but the simple fact of the matter is that most people just don’t care how they watch a movie. They will watch them on their ipad, ipad, or various other devices. This is the primary reason why it’s going to be a while before a new format replaces blu-ray.

    • JM

      The majority of dvd consumers are primarily watching ‘Twilight.’

      These are people who wouldn’t understand 4K if you hit them on the forehead with a ball-peen hammer stamped 4K.

      Don’t be surprised by the velocity. Technology evolves exponentially.

  6. Drew

    As you know, I couldn’t agree more with your, “fuck the mass market” statement. Unfortunately, the mass market is what determines when a new format will debut. That’s why it took 20+ years to get high-def at home.

    If Sony said they will possibly release a PS4 next year, that means they are waffling, and reneging on previous public statements to the contrary.

    I’d love it if we could get a new 4K/8K format to call this era’s laserdisc, but there’s a reason that there’s never been another format for extreme enthusiasts since laserdisc failed so epically. I don’t think any manufacturer will have the balls to give us a new laserdisc. I’m hoping that RED proves me wrong.

    You know I would buy in if an entire 4K ecosystem debuted next year. I would buy it all. Sadly, people like me, and many of us that frequent HDD are what they call the “1 percenters.” Nobody is clamoring to back a whole new format for us.

    • JM

      If I was Sony I would buy Netflix so the PS4 had a 4K disc rental program, with an option to own.

      And I’d give the customer the choice to customize their case type and cover art.

  7. While this does sound like a promising step for the Blu-ray format, Panamorph may have overlooked one important authoring requirement.
    Studios need to able to fix half of the subtitles into the below screen black bar, thereby preventing proper playback for CIH adopters. I’m fairly certain that any attempt to display all of the subtitles in the picture frame(you know like in a movie theater) is punishable by five years in prison, and a fine of up to $250,000 by either the FBI or Interpol.

    • Josh Zyber

      The subtitle position problem is a battle that I personally fought and won against Sony. After enough badgering, the studio changed its policy and now displays subtitles in the movie image. Warner is the biggest offender that still puts them in the letterbox bar. Universal, Paramount and Disney usually do the right thing. Fox and some of the minor studios are inconsistent about it.

      OPPO Blu-ray players allow you to move the position of the subtitles at will. While I get that you were just joking, this is a functionality that can be (and has been) installed in player firmware.

      • William Henley

        This option should actually be included in all future players, and in the next format standard. Shoot, I want to just be able to display all my subtitles in the same spot – it annoys me when they start putting subtitles all over the place at the begining of a movie to keep from typing over credits. Expecially when they go back and forth! Subtitles in people’s heads and faces are absolutely annoying!

  8. Nice article, I really had no idea until now (unusual for me) that movies in 2:35 weren’t “anamorphic” already. It’s really super shortsighted that they didn’t have a way of allowing those (with the right gear) to be displayed properly.

    I don’t have a projection setup and probably won’t for some time, so this won’t affect me other than nagging at the back of my mind. I have the best setup I can afford, and for that means Blu-Ray’s.

    The future will be streaming content at a rate higher than BLU and hopefully when that starts to really happen someone will come up with a better standard that will display movies properly when you have the right gear. But considering how much money Hollywood makes they really seem to treat their movies like Crap when they hit home video.

    Anybody seen an original DVD of Outland (Connery)?? Really hope someone got fired twice for that fiasco.

    • EM

      Yeah, I’m looking forward to this summer’s Blu-ray of Outland. For backwards-compatibility reasons, I wish a nice new anamorphic DVD were also coming out, but it’s not essential—mostly I would just use the Blu-ray anyway, and I’m thankful it’s coming out at all.

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