Digital cinema refers to the use of digital technology to distribute or project motion pictures as opposed to the historical use of reels of motion picture film, such as 35 mm film. Whereas film reels have to be shipped to movie theaters, a digital movie can be distributed to cinemas in a number of ways: over the Internet or dedicated satellite links, or by sending hard drives or optical discs such as Blu-ray discs. Digital movies are projected using a digital video projector instead of a film projector. Digital cinema is distinct from high-definition television and does not necessarily use traditional television or other traditional high-definition video standards, aspect ratios, or frame rates. In digital cinema, resolutions are represented by the horizontal pixel count, usually 2K (2048×1080 or 2.2 megapixels) or 4K (4096×2160 or 8.8 megapixels). As digital-cinema technology improved in the early 2010s, most theaters across the world converted to digital video projection.
The transition from analog to the digital video was preceded by cinema's transition from analog to digital audio, with the release of the Dolby Digital (AC-3) audio coding standard in 1991. Its main basis is the modified discrete cosine transform (MDCT), a lossy audio compression algorithm. It is a modification of the discrete cosine transform (DCT) algorithm, which was first proposed by Nasir Ahmed in 1972 and was originally intended for image compression. The DCT was adapted into the MDCT by J.P. Princen, A.W. Johnson and Alan B. Bradley at the University of Surrey in 1987, and then Dolby Laboratories adapted the MDCT algorithm along with perceptual coding principles to develop the AC-3 audio format for cinema needs. Cinema in the 1990s typically combined analog video with digital audio.
Digital media playback of high-resolution 2K files has at least a 20-year history. Early video data storage units (RAIDs) fed custom frame buffer systems with large memories. In early digital video units, the content was usually restricted to several minutes of material. The transfer of content between remote locations was slow and had limited capacity. It was not until the late 1990s that feature-length films could be sent over the "wire" (Internet or dedicated fiber links). On October 23, 1998, Digital Light Processing (DLP) projector technology was publicly demonstrated with the release of The Last Broadcast, the first feature-length movie, shot, edited and distributed digitally. In conjunction with Texas Instruments, the movie was publicly demonstrated in five theaters across the United States (Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), Minneapolis, Providence, and Orlando).