Three technology providers, three rendering engines, two speaker layouts (the third company happy to copy others), only one company with a large number of movie mixes in its arsenal, and no one has demonstrated an ROI. It would seem that immersive sound is mostly immersed with itself. Common judgment might say that the lack of standards is the reason why the immersive sound market is so confusing. If only it were so simple.
Let’s start with loudspeaker layouts. It might surprise one that there aren’t formal standards or recommended practices for speaker layouts in cinema. THX put everyone on the same page with its loudspeaker layout specification in the 80’s, but THX is not engaged in cinema today, and no organization has since filled that gap. No wonder that manufacturers feel free to do what they want. Auro 3D advocates two layers of speakers on walls, and a few on the ceiling. Dolby advocates a massive array of speakers on the ceiling, with only one layer on walls. Imm Sound, while it existed, promoted a slightly different arrangement. DTS, attempting to be sensible, says it will support any layout. If exhibitors have a say, it would be speakers on walls, to reduce liability and avoid the structural retrofit required of heavy ceiling speaker arrays. If a common speaker layout emerges out of all this, it will be because a clear market leader appears to force the issue.
Next up is the sound mix. The question no one likes to answer is whether a mix intended for playback on one system sounds as good on a competing system. The judge of this is the sound mixer. Experience shows that a mix moved from one speaker system to another invites changes in the mix, which is to say that mixes are not portable per se among different speaker systems.
There are sufficient incompatibilities that it would seem reasonable to push for immersive sound standards. But the sound standards now being pursued do not address the core problem of speaker system layouts. The standard effort is focused on the “bit stream,” the combination of data and sound that is distributed. Standardizing a bit stream might appear to be a useful endeavor, but it has yet to prove so. There are two highly incompatible bit streams in the market, and each bit stream is effectively coupled to a different speaker layout. Homogenizing the bit stream to accommodate both systems, even if it were possible, does not solve the multiple speaker layout and multiple mix problems.
The focus on bit stream does not place the standards effort on good footing. A common bit stream will not define a standard immersive speaker layout. It will not solve the problem of multiple mixes for multiple sound systems. If homogenized, it will not pave the way for a market leader that could help solve these issues. If not homogenized, and a market leader is attempted to be selected by committee, it becomes an anti-trust issue.
If a market leader appears, it will be defined in the traditional manner, in the marketplace. Dolby may be ahead today in market share with Atmos, but the game is still young. Less than 1% of cinema screens around the world have immersive sound. There is plenty of opportunity for a lower cost system to gain more market share. Whether the standards effort will allow market dynamics to lead is the subject of another report.
So why don’t we see more aggressive behavior in the marketplace from immersive sound companies? The answer can be found in the corporate strategies at play. Even the most conservative observer would say that Dolby is driven by the desire for world domination. Atmos was designed as a closed architecture. Dolby controls the mixes, and only Dolby sells Atmos processors. Only recently did Dolby offer to open up the Atmos bit stream to others, a noble gesture. However, other manufacturers have looked at the documentation offered, and claim it to be inadequate. So perhaps world domination is still on its mind.
DTS naturally seeks market share for DTS-X across all platforms, but DTS is subtle in its approach to world domination. The company has taken the path of maneuvering its way into standards in both home entertainment and cinema, rather than flooding the marketplace upfront with its technology. In cinema, DTS freely licenses its technology, relying solely on 3rd party cinema manufacturers for implementation and product sales.
This strategy may seem magnanimous, but it has left DTS in a bit of a bind. Most 3rd party DTS-X cinema products require a sync signal from the media block to operate. To accommodate, DTS has dutifully standardized a sync signal for this purpose. But the company does not have the means to put it to work. DTS no longer produces its own server, having jettisoned its cinema division in 2008. Doremi, the market leader in media blocks, is now owned by Dolby. The projector companies are candidates for the sync signal, but NEC and Christie have not implemented it, and Barco is only interested in it’s own audio system. That leaves GDC, which has incorporated DTS-X directly in its media block – good news for DTS – but is not motivated to enable competing DTS-X players with a sync signal. With only one manufacturer to support its format, and no support for its sync signal, DTS’ ability to grab significant market share is limited. There are ways around this impasse, and we may yet see DTS alter its course.
Then there’s Barco and Auro. If Barco has a strategy for world domination in immersive sound, the world is waiting to see it. When it comes to sound, Barco appears happy to ride in the back seat while others drive the vehicle. It has not leveraged growth of its format by licensing its technology to others. It has not proposed an immersive bit stream of its own, instead waiting for others to produce a standard. Even if the one true standard should emerge, it will take significant effort – not necessarily paid effort – to ensure that such mixes accommodate the Barco/Auro speaker layout. If the goal is to promote premium value through branded quality, then a proprietary solution makes sense. But Barco, to date, has not played the quality card well in cinema sound, refraining from imposing the kind of controls over its ecosystem that Dolby, in contrast, employs so well. If Barco has a plan for moving from the back seat to the front, it is hidden from view.
From this analysis, one might think that Dolby has its path paved for it. But its immersive sound competitors do not appear ready to cave. There is still opportunity to tune up, and we could yet see a sharper game.