More has been written in the press about immersive sound than in standards committees. Unfortunately, neither has produced useful results. Perhaps its time to be more honest about what is possible, and less dogmatic about how the industry can best embrace this new technology.
Several dynamics underscore immersive sound, and indeed, cinema in general. The first is that, historically, it has proven beneficial to embrace innovation. Second, also historically, it is market forces that determine winners and losers in the cinema innovation game, not committees. Third, it takes capital to drive innovation in the marketplace. Committees have their role in supporting and guiding innovation. But to be effective, it is necessary to nurture these core dynamics, and not become a source of friction.
Nothing happens in isolation. The very existence of a committee empowered to oversee innovation will impact investment at the R&D level, and will impact end-user sales. Given their financial impact, committees are most effective when enabling monetization across a wide base of manufacturers. As such, the gold standard in standards committees is MPEG. Operating on the principle that it is better to be guaranteed a small piece of a large pie than risk having a large piece of nothing, MPEG provides a vehicle for technology providers to pool intellectual property in the formation of a common standard. Technology providers benefit by sharing licensing fees. The marketplace, in turn, benefits through interoperable products. The fact that the name of the committee is known to probably every reader illustrates its success.
One of the secrets to MPEG’s success, through, is the limitation of its role the definition of algorithms, where there is a clean path for pooling intellectual property. In comparison, immersive sound is following an inverted process from that of MPEG. The algorithms in immersive sound are in the rendering engines, which are not on the table for standardization. Rather than focus on algorithms, the standards effort is focusing on the bit stream that drives competitive rendering engines. There is little to no intellectual property in bit streams to pool, removing any financial reason for technology providers to cooperate. There are numerous and highly incompatible ways to construct bit streams, and it should be no surprise that the technology providers with stakes in this game have followed widely different paths. Predictably, entrenched positions are blocking useful progress towards a single bit stream.
A single bit stream would be feasible if it became the vehicle for monetizing rendering engines. But here again, company strategies diverge. DTS values its bit stream, and has opted to give away its rendering engine to encourage use of its bit stream. Dolby’s course has wandered, but is settling around the strategy of valuing its proprietary rendering engine, and giving away its bit stream. Dolby has no incentive to change its bit stream to incorporate concepts valued by DTS, as it would require Dolby to significantly redesign the code for its rendering engine. Likewise, it does not serve DTS to invest further in its freely licensed rendering engine to accommodate Dolby’s very different way of doing things.
There is another consideration. It is entirely possible that a common bit stream will look great on paper, and never find its way into real products. Your author has participated in committees where lots of head nodding takes place, but no action in the marketplace. It’s a matter of following the money, as already pointed out. Each company not only has a significant stake in its existing methods, but the sound mix and loudspeaker systems must also be taken into account.
There are no standards for immersive loudspeaker arrays, and none in consideration. While bit streams and rendering engines are largely invisible to sound mixers, loudspeaker systems are not. Change the loudspeaker system, and the mix gets tweaked. A tweaked mix is a different mix. Without a sophisticated workflow and bit stream, a different mix translates into a different distribution, which is where the pain lies. Distributors are concerned about the management of different distributions. Exhibitors are concerned about the availability of different distributions.
The standards committee is left with a few choices. It can continue on its course of searching for common ground among technology providers, hoping that a common method will emerge, requiring new investment. Or it could take a more expedient approach, and simply allow competing technology providers to standardize their existing methods, where significant investment has already taken place. The first approach assumes that new investment will follow. The second approach embraces current investment. Neither approach is perfect. But there are advantages to the second approach that this author will argue.
The primary argument for embracing competing standards is that the issues of immersive sound are complex, and not solved by a committee-produced common bit stream. A better approach is to incentivize the commercial sector to solve these problems, as that’s where the money is. If multiple standards exist, then it is useful to encourage the manufacturers of products to play content produced in a variety of formats, rather than only one. This is no different than what smart phones do daily with media files, where several standards are supported as not all content providers do things the same way.
The movie industry can accommodate the multiple standards scheme. It’s not necessary for a movie to support all formats if products in the field support all bit streams. It is only necessary for a movie to support one bit stream. The bit stream selection process invites sharp competition in all of the important areas that are impossible to define in a cinema standard: the size of the cinema footprint, acceptable support for multiple loudspeaker systems, the portability of the final bit stream to downstream media formats, as well as the cost of producing the bit stream. Positioned in this manner, the standards process encourages investment in useful innovation, rather than asking investors to toss away existing investment and re-invest in a new process – an ask that is likely to fail.
At its core, the proposal for multiple standards recognizes that technology moves faster than committees. If investment in innovation in cinema is to be encouraged, there must be a framework in place that supports it. If every new investment in cinema must be subject to several years of noodling in standards committees, investors will find other places to put their money. As said earlier, this proposal is not a perfect solution. But this author believes it is the best solution available, recognizing that the opportunity for a perfect solution has long passed.
A reasonable question posed is why have standards at all if there can’t be just one? The answer to that is that multiple standards enable competition at the product level. Without formal standards in place, an ecosystem of multiple technologies simply becomes a collection of monopolies. The goal of this proposal is to use standards to encourage a healthy, competitive marketplace, and discourage monopolistic behavior.
As presented here, the proposal to standardize multiple technologies was made by your author to the standards community this past month. It appears to have gained traction with certain technology providers. But that does not mean it will prevail. A decision could be a few months away. No doubt there will be more to discuss later.