This past month, Los Angeles was host to both the annual Audio Engineering Society convention and the annual SMPTE conference. Object-based audio was an important subject in both events, highlighting the strong differences in OBA technology for home entertainment from that applied in the cinema.
In cinema, object-based audio provides two basic value propositions. The first is data compaction, allowing many channels of audio to be delivered in an uncompressed format without the need to also deliver audio data for the silent spots. The second is the ability to associate sounds with metadata, allowing an in-theater rendering engine to make localization decisions particular to the theater.
While these value propositions for the cinema may seem straight-forward, they are not shared with home entertainment. After all, home entertainment is quite willing to compress audio, eliminating any data burden caused by silent spots. And while the localization of sound in a room sounds sexy, how many home entertainment systems have large speaker counts that justify the use of such technology? It makes sense, then, that the value proposition for OBA in home entertainment has no correlation to that of OBA in the cinema. In fact, marketers have given the home entertainment version a name: personalized audio.
Personalized audio is clever. It’s designed to augment a program with multiple flavors of audio, selected by the user. The archetypal example is a sports broadcast, where different styles of commentary may be offered. Or different commentary in different languages may be offered. The value to a broadcaster is that by offering different flavors of a program in one go, it retains audience by providing a disincentive for viewers to switch channels. Of course, if all broadcasters employ this technology, then its implementation becomes mandatory in order to compete, making implementation a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, the EBU and ITU are busy at work standardizing object-based audio, and companies such as Fraunhofer and Dolby are competing to provide technology in this space. None of these efforts in home entertainment, neither standardization nor competitive methods, have direct application to cinema. What is noteworthy is that OBA provides a value proposition for home entertainment that can be monetized. Or taking a different view, its non-use could negatively impact revenues. This is distinctly different than in cinema, where non-use of OBA is likely to go unnoticed by the audience.
This point is particularly important for exhibitors to understand. OBA in broadcast can be directly tied to competitive programming and monetization. OBA in cinema, on the other hand, is a much harder sell to the audience, making monetization difficult to achieve. The cinema OBA values of data compaction and improved sound placement are simply not values that audiences connect to.
The message is that if OBA is interesting to you, but the current pricing of OBA systems is not, then it’s better to wait. There is little downside to waiting, and the lack of a substantial value proposition that connects with the audience is a good predictor that market forces are likely to move your way, rather than there being a need for you to move quickly towards the market.