For over two years, studios have sought a single immersive sound distribution standard. The man-hours spent in standards committees in pursuit of this dream are surely worth more than any box office generated by immersive sound. The fruits of this effort, however, have started to bloom. Or possibly wither. It was determined this month that the best path forward for immersive sound in cinema is to develop an independent bit stream. Independent, that is, from that now in use by Barco, Dolby, and DTS. In other words, a fourth method will be developed that will be available to all companies for use in their products.
Of the three companies mentioned, only one has shown willingness to adopt the technology of another developer. This fact could have been learned several years ago, had anyone asked. If there was belief that a standards committee could alter the disposition of public companies, one might hope that this lesson has been learned. No amount of enthusiasm from non-invested participants is sufficient to force competitors into sharing technology that they consider strategic. This is particularly true in cinema, where ROI’s tend to be realized in downstream media.
But there’s certainly no reason to limit this discussion to immersive sound. The classic example of a misguided standards effort is SMPTE DCP. SMPTE DCP was developed with the assumption that adoption would simply follow. No feasibility study for adoption of the technology was conducted, particularly in light that a parallel version of DCP was already in use that was not compatible. With no adoption plan in place, six years later the industry continues to spend gobs of man-hours trying to bring SMPTE DCP into wide scale use. The real shame is that further developments in DCP-related technology is hinged to the SMPTE version of DCP, continuing the cycle of spending more man-hours of development time on technologies that may never be widely used.
A better mechanism for approving standards work is needed, particularly in cinema. Some standards organizations have been known to conduct feasibility studies before engaging in standards activity, but this can be difficult to arrange from a legal perspective. It would be better for a sister organization, having a separate charter, to take on such activity. The sister organization would simply conduct a feasibility study to determine if a proposed effort has a reasonable chance of success. Similarly, the sister organization could also investigate appropriate solutions to a problem, and from there produce a study that advises the best path forward in terms of a standard. Such input could not exclusively come from the sister organization, and other feasibility studies could also result. The standards organization would then consider the feasibility studies when determining to take on the new standards project.
The work of a sister organization should not stop with the generation of a feasibility study. Technology rollout plans are needed if a standard is to be successful, and this takes substantial planning to be successful. The infamous success of Interop DCP, for example, was greatly assisted by the creation of open code libraries that could be employed in actual products. A group was also formed by which developers could exchange actual DCPs to learn if others could read what they produced. The successful adoption of the off-screen caption protocols developed in SMPTE was greatly assisted by the sharing of test tools and test boxes among developers, as well as content support driven by end users. These activities do not “just happen.” They require substantial planning, support, and coordination. But without these efforts, we simply end up with more technologies destined to match the success rate of SMPTE DCP.
The good news is that SMPTE recently “merged” with the Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA), a trade organization based in, you guessed it, Hollywood. I put quotes around “merged” as that’s the word used in the press release, but by nature of its trade organization status, HPA will remain separate from SMPTE in everything but management personnel. HPA would make a great home for future feasibility studies of proposed standards activities and technology rollout planning.