The Palm Pilot surely wasn’t the point of the TikTok, but it seemed to be the only thing anybody noticed. Ahead of the release of Oppenheimer, the official IMAX TikTok account posted a video showing the mind-bending size of the 70mm film print and the orange extensions IMAX had to build just to hold the platter in place. To give you some context: Oppenheimer’s film reportedly weighs 600 pounds, and the reel is an outrageous 11 miles long. Director Christopher Nolan told Collider that he thinks he might have hit the “outer limit” for how big a film reel can be.
But anyway, back to the Palm Pilot. Right there, in the foreground of the TikTok video, is a small blue and silver Palm device. (It’s technically not called a Palm Pilot — PalmPilot was the name of the company and devices long before the m130 came out — but everybody calls this class of devices Palm Pilots. So we will, too.) More specifically: a picture of a Palm Pilot, on a tablet, mounted to a white column next to the machine holding the reels. It’s not just a Palm Pilot; it’s a Palm Pilot emulator, running on another device because that’s apparently how important this thing is to getting Oppenheimer on a screen near you.
The emulated device in question is a Palm m130, a device released in 2002. It had a two-inch 160 x 160 display, was powered by Motorola’s 33MHz DragonBall VZ processor, and ran on Palm OS 4.1. Palm said the battery would last a week between charges, and you could even add Bluetooth via a card slot. People liked it, it got good reviews. You probably haven’t thought about it in damn near two decades.
In an IMAX theater, the m130’s job is to control the quick turn reel unit, or QTRU for short. (For many years, it appears, a non-emulated m130 sat holstered in most theaters.) The QTRU’s job is to control the platters, which are those large horizontal shelves where all of a film’s many reels are stitched together, stored, and then quickly spun out to and from the projector. The IMAX 1570 projector moves film at a little under six feet per second, so it’s all happening really fast.
The m130 is apparently crucial to keeping the thing humming — “PALM PILOT MUST BE ON ALL THE TIME,” reads a notice above an image of a different m130 that has since been passed around the internet — but doesn’t often need to be used. “I’ve never had to interact with the Palm Pilot,” says one person familiar with the technology. “It’s really just a status screen.” Its job is to keep the QTRU moving at a consistent speed and to help keep the film’s video in sync with its audio.
If you zoom in on the image, as of course the entire internet did, there are four things it displays. Our knowledgeable source explained each one:
- ProjL and ProjR: Refers to the sides of a 3D projector, L and R meaning left and right. “This is from the days of the 45-minute 3D documentaries, where there was a right eye print and a left eye print which both ran through the projector at the same time.”
- Takeup: Defines which platter is ready to receive the film after it goes through the projector.
- Feed: Defines which platter is feeding film into the projector.
- Locked: “If this is highlighted, this means that the platters are ready to run.”
The Palm-powered QTRU system is actually a relatively high-tech part of an otherwise extremely manual process. Yves Leibowitz, a longtime projectionist, has made a number of popular YouTube videos documenting the process of loading a film, which requires setting up the enormous reels in exactly the right place, manually threading film through a number of rollers and platters, and constantly checking and rechecking to make sure everything’s lined up and ready to go.
In most of his videos, you actually get a brief glimpse of a Palm device set up next to the QTRU, but Leibowitz never seems to need to touch it. In every case we’ve seen, though, it’s an actual physical device. The emulator appears to be a new phenomenon, and in fact, IMAX told Vice it was created specifically for Oppenheimer. “IMAX Engineering designed and manufactured an emulator that mimics the look and feel of a PalmPilot to keep it simple and familiar for IMAX film projectionists,” the company said. The emulator, if you’re curious, appears to be running on a Winmate W10IB3S-PCH2AC-POE Panel PC, a 10.1-inch Windows tablet that appears to have been designed to live outside of conference rooms and help people control schedules and video conferencing.
The obvious question here is, why in the world would IMAX still run its systems on a 21-year-old device? And why, when faced with the need to update it, would it choose to simply emulate said 21-year-old device on a crappy Windows tablet? Other QTRU systems have a controller built into the machine itself, which seems better in every imaginable way.
For IMAX, like so many other companies that rely on generations-old technology, the answer is simple: it works. And it’s not like it’s a booming industry in need of reinvention. There are only 30 theaters worldwide that can even show a full 70mm print like Oppenheimer, 19 of them in the US. Most IMAX experiences are digital now, like most moviegoing experiences in general.
Nolan is actually one of the few filmmakers left making 70mm IMAX movies at all, and if he’s hit the limit of the technology, even he might not do it much longer. “If 70mm IMAX had a resurgence then I’d expect that they’d update the QTRU controllers,” our source says. “Until then it’s best to ride it until the wheels fall off.” Palm OS is simple and stable and easily emulated (heck, you can run it in your browser right now) and still does this particular job just fine.
Besides, threading and running an IMAX movie is a complicated and detail-oriented job, and many of the projectionists who do it have been doing it for years. Why change the process if you don’t have to? Sure, the emulator looks silly stuck to that machine, but the point is how it looks in the theater. And that Palm m130 still does its teeny-tiny job in making sure that 70mm IMAX Oppenheimer looks damn good.