ShowEast provided the expected sideshow of immersive sound format wars. DTS was not present to promote its MDA format, not surprisingly. The sole flag bearer on the trade show floor for MDA was QSC, a company known for amps and speakers. Barco and Dolby each held in-theater demonstrations of their systems, each touting the superiority of their format. Everyone talked about support for standards. No one talked about how all of this is going to work out.
The topic that has yet to be discussed is how competitive formats will co-exist. This requires opening one’s kimono, and, instead, everyone is still playing coy. The Barco/Auro format relies on the proprietary encoding of its channel-based scheme. Barco’s statements about open formats are deceptive, as Auro’s technique is patented. Barco is the exclusive licensee of Auro’s technology for cinema. This explains why Barco’s demo at ShowEast touted the superiority of its sound mixing tools, as the entire system, from mix to encoding to speaker positioning, is an end-to-end ecosystem. Unless Barco is willing to concede the exclusivity of its license for Auro’s patent, there’s no way for competitive Auro-compatible systems to emerge.
Dolby Atmos takes a different approach to sound from Auro. It doesn’t require a special encoding of its tracks, as long as the sound objects can be recognized, and its metadata exists – the additional data that tells the rendering engine where to place the sound. No patents have yet been spotted concerning Atmos’ metadata, but there is still time for that. It’s important to note that open distribution of metadata doesn’t mean that a non-Dolby rendering engine will interpret it in the manner heard in the mixing room – therein lies the “secret sauce” that Dolby talks about. Dolby positions speakers differently than Auro. But Dolby uses a rendering engine that can support flexibility with speaker positions. Long term, one should expect Dolby to support different speaker layouts, although the company has yet to talk in those terms.
To sum up, Barco/Auro requires a proprietary distribution format, and Dolby doesn’t. Barco and Dolby each utilize different speaker layouts. Auro is inflexible in this, Dolby much less so.
Of the two companies, Barco is the least forthright about its plans. It talks about Auro as DCI compliant, which it is not. Barco may use the DCI 16-channel format for carrying its audio, but it is stretching the DCI requirement for PCM WAVE audio per channel. Instead, Barco encodes more than one audio channel in each DCI channel. The semaphore given by both Barco and Auro indicate that they intend to continue with this practice in any new distribution format introduced. In other words, Barco intends to encode Auro audio in a new immersive format, such that only Barco decoders can play the full soundfield. If the goal is world dominance, then this might be deemed an interesting strategy. But it requires that the movie be mixed in Auro 3D, and that’s where things fall apart for Barco. Barco failed to open an office in Hollywood, and hasn’t the clout with directors and movie studios to win movie mixes. When asked during its ShowEast demo how many movies were in the pipeline, the number was small. Barco’s saving grace are the three empty slots in the back of its sound processor, which presumably will be stuffed in the future to decode mixes produced by Dolby mixing tools.
Dolby is not without its challenges. A recent article from its top cinema executive dismissed Barco’s effort, sending the signal that world domination is still the goal. With no guidance from either company about how to make immersive sound a friendlier place, I’ll draw a parallel to the “old days,” when Dolby Stereo was first introduced. At that time, two unique elements existed in the sound path, both protected by patents: the matrix sound decoder, and noise reduction. The patents for the matrix sound decoder were owned by two different parties, neither of which were involved in cinema, and the noise reduction patent was owned by Dolby. The distribution format was open. Anyone could read the sound track. But to play it correctly, one needed noise reduction and a matrix decoder. To get these, one had to hobble something together that didn’t violate patents. At least one manufacturer did this very well: USL. Even though Dolby first entered the cinema market with the intent to dominate the world, it later admitted that the market for its products would be stronger by not fighting copy products and conceding some market share to competitors. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear those words today?
Ultimately, as often said in this publication, the battle of immersive sound will be won in the mixing room, not in the cinema. In this, Dolby is set to win. Clearly, Barco would have to be living in a cave to think otherwise. But what the industry needs is a graceful win, and this is where the fuzzy part lies. Some more clarity on how both Barco and Dolby plan to compete in a more beneficial manner for the industry would put a lot of minds to rest.