DCI amended its Digital Cinema System Specification for the second time in its history, this time to address object-based audio. It’s not clear why DCI felt the need to rush into this area, and the resulting requirement is lopsided in terms of whose technology it addresses, and whose technology it doesn’t.
There are two immersive sound systems marketed and installed in cinemas: Barco Auro-3D (licensed from Auro Technologies), and Dolby Atmos. A third system, Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA), has been proposed by DTS. DTS, however, has no interest in investing in products for the cinema space, and instead seeks licensees to do the dirty work for them. In return, DTS hopes to obtain access to immersive movie mixes produced in its format, which it presumably will use in a future immersive consumer format. While several manufacturing companies have shown interest, no one has yet demonstrated a cinema product utilizing MDA technology, and no movie mixes have been produced with MDA.
Immersive sound in cinema has probably raised more controversy than box office. Auro-3D, a proprietary format, was first to widely market its immersive system. Some early players in the game have disappeared. IMM Sound, a small company but with good mastering tools, was purchased by Dolby, and IOSONO bowed out of the business long ago, even if it’s staff fails to admit it. In its zeal to catch up, Dolby aggressively rolled out Atmos, without giving sufficient thought to competitive reaction. Dolby’s success with its object-based format left DTS feeling disadvantaged, resulting it DTS’ backroom proposal of MDA for cinema.
DTS’ motives may not be the best for the cinema industry, but it has without doubt successfully raised awareness that a single object-based sound format is viable. Dolby, who initially claimed its distribution format was too specialized for standardization, became the first to propose an object-based standardization project to SMPTE. But MDA proponents are not without their fumbles. Rather than take a friendly approach and submit improvements to the Dolby proposal in SMPTE, MDA proponents submitted a duplicate project to a different technology committee, as if a different committee has significance in the eye of SMPTE (it doesn’t). In a further display of naiveté, the MDA proponents attempted to include an intellectual property statement in its proposal, in direct violation of SMPTE’s overriding policy for intellectual property in standards. SMPTE management will only allow one work effort for a given task, so only one project group for immersive audio will be formed.
Dolby’s proposal in SMPTE served as a signal to DCI that it was safe to proclaim that support for an object-based sound standard will be required in future DCI compliant equipment. This is because Dolby is the only company whose object-based format is actually in use in cinemas. Without Dolby’s SMPTE proposal, such proclamation from DCI could be deemed as restraint-of-trade, in violation of anti-trust law, as the purpose of a standard is to allow third party systems to decode Dolby Atmos track files. (See my article in Digital Cinema Report for more on that subject.) If Dolby were to pull its proposal from SMPTE, DCI would be in an anti-trust pickle, making one wonder why DCI was in such a rush.
The rush to action seems even more bizarre given that Dolby’s implementation of object-based sound does not require playout within the main media block. In Dolby’s implementation, a remote media block is synchronized, where the object-based sound track file is played, decrypted, and rendered. Recognizing its blunder, DCI now realizes that the entire DCI specification must be revised to address multiple media blocks. (In truth, there already exists a use case for multiple media blocks with high frame rate content, but that use case is so limited in practice that it is excepted by DCI members on a case-by-case basis.)
If DCI’s rush to action was ill advised, it only appears to be further so when considering what DCI did not do. By impacting only Dolby Atmos with its revised specification, it appears to be letting Barco’s Auro-3D to squeak by unscathed. DCI limits its revision to object-based sound, and Dolby is the only company with an object-based sound format. Barco’s Auro-3D is channel-based, and does not utilize object-based sound. In fact, the manner in which Auro-3D is included in digital cinema distributions is patented. When piercing the smoke screen of activity around MDA, one will find that neither Barco nor Auro have proposed that the Auro-3D format also be distributed in a standardized manner. The result is that DCI now requires Dolby to allow others to compete with Atmos, while allowing Barco to retain its monopoly with its Auro-3D format.
DCI’s oversight would not be a problem had Barco also proclaimed that it would switch to open distributions. But that hasn’t happened. Open distribution on Barco’s part would not only undermine the Auro Technologies patents that it licenses, but incur significant costs to Barco, if not undermine Auro-3D entirely. Regardless of DCI’s lopsided action, it’s unlikely that distribution execs will consider the nuances outlined above, and more likely that they’ll expect Barco to switch to standardized distributions, along with Dolby. Barco, however, appears to be blinded by its own smoke, claiming that it is already DCI compliant, and giving no thought to the fact that its monopoly for Auro-3D is at risk. As the smoke clears, we should expect some teary-eyed campers to emerge.