The rapid worldwide transition to DCI-compliant digital projection has been nothing less than spectacular. But that success has blinded many people into thinking that standards and/or the DCI specification now rule the industry. This perception is cause for confusion over how the industry will rollout an immersive sound standard.
Hollywood has been distributing proprietary sound formats with movies since the mid-70’s. The relatively recent introduction of formats such as Iosono, Auro 11.1, and Atmos follow in the footsteps of so many formats before. But there is a distinct difference, and this difference is important.
It was the mid-70’s when Dolby introduced its proprietary noise reduction to filmmaking, initiating a revolution in cinema sound. The success of Dolby’s proprietary format did not create a monopoly, however. Unintentionally, Ray Dolby left a gap in the patent for his noise reduction method, allowing one fellow inventor, Jack Cashin, to capitalize by manufacturing non-infringing but fully interoperable cinema processors. The company was USL. A competitive market was created, instead of a monopoly, to the ultimate benefit of both Dolby and USL. Competition not only validated Dolby’s work, but it provided a stable base on which the industry could grow.
Matrix encoding/decoding was also a critical technology in mid-70’s cinema sound. While Dolby did not create the patents for this technology, it engaged in exclusive licensing deals to control its use. USL, however, was again able to build non-infringing decoders, sustaining competition in the marketplace, to the benefit of the industry.
Fast forward to today, and Dolby’s theme for business hasn’t changed. Atmos was introduced as a proprietary sound format. But unlike Dolby’s early days with noise reduction, there doesn’t exist a backdoor for others to build non-infringing fully interoperable products. Dolby has not only created a monopoly with Atmos, but it also has become the landlord of studio-owned soundtracks, since only Dolby can decipher the digital sound data that emerges from an Atmos sound mix. This is anything but a stable, competitive market.
Industry concern over monopolistic behavior is the primary reason for the creation of the SMPTE 25CSS Immersive Sound Working Group. This is an inventive activity, not an activity that is documenting industry practice. Atmos is not being standardized, but rather, a mishmash of technologies are being tossed in a pot to create something new. The final outcome will not represent DTS MDA as demonstrated today by USL and QSC, and it will not represent the hundreds of installations of Dolby Atmos.
Rather than seek a commercial solution, SMPTE was handed the effort, apparently on the basis of success of prior SMPTE cinema standards. (One can argue that this success is overstated, as no movies are actually distributed using SMPTE DCP. But that would be a digression.) No one, however, has acknowledged that SMPTE has yet to be successful in standardizing a sound format. A 16-channel PCM distribution track file may have been standardized as part of the suite of digital cinema standards. But that’s the equivalent of standardizing a paper bag that holds 16 pencils. While SMPTE attempts to describe what one does with the pencils, no movie has ever been distributed that actually follows SMPTE’s prescription, with the sole exception of the HFR version of Hobbit 2. Dolby may use SMPTE DCP for Atmos, but it employs Interop guidelines, not SMPTE standards, for packing audio channels in the accessory 5.1 sound track.
DCI is relatively powerless in this effort. DCI was successful in establishing its specification worldwide because banks inserted DCI compliance into financing agreements, securing receipt of the VPF subsidy. No bank with committed funds will recognize a new dictate from DCI. Without money to motivate adoption, DCI’s newer “mandates” become simply nice-to-haves.
None of this bodes well for a new immersive sound standard. SMPTE does not have a history of success in cinema sound formats upon which to build, and studios have not volunteered (nor should one expect them) to pay for a transition to a new immersive sound standard.
If the industry wants to avoid a monopoly in cinema sound, then the problem needs more attention. Dolby, for obvious reasons, is not motivated to solve this problem. In fact, it’s not at all clear who is committed to solve it. DTS, who has spent the past few years giving the industry hope that its freely-licensed MDA format will be the industry’s savior, is not directed to build a strong presence in cinema, having exited the cinema business in 2008. Auro Technologies, a start-up, could be motivated to rollout an open royalty-free standard, but would need a clear financial incentive to do so.
A somewhat related problem occurred in the early days of digital cinema. TI’s licensees were selling a 1.2K projector. But there was a problem: not all studios would deliver content to these installations, as they wanted higher resolution. Eventually, TI got the message, redesigned its chips to display 2K, and the rest is history. Such brute-force tactics may seem heavy-handed, but it is the only mechanism available to studios today when it comes to getting the technology they want.
The industry has a chicken-and-egg problem. One can ponder whether one or a few studios will have the will to exercise brute-force tactics. But more importantly, why would a company invest heavily in the implementation of an open standard without a commitment for content? There are studios today that exercise brute force tactics by limiting their immersive sound distributions to Dolby Atmos. But surely this cannot be the message they intended. Some soul searching is needed within the studios themselves if they really want an immersive sound standard to take root.