The past four years have been ripe with controversy over immersive sound in cinema. Every technology provider in this space claims some degree of intellectual property, creating sparks with distributors and exhibitors seeking a koombya moment of love and peace where everyone shares a single immersive sound distribution. But miracles happen. At the end of September, Dolby took the bold step of removing its claim to intellectual property in its distribution format. In taking this step, Dolby opens the door to license-free distribution that should have a significant, positive impact on the growth of immersive sound in cinema.
Four years ago, in October 2012, the SMPTE 25CSS Technology Committee for Cinema Sound Systems first met, with immersive sound a topic on the agenda. Following a long study effort that produced questionable results, the immersive sound standards group first met in January of 2014. It was at this time that DTS first placed its MDA technology on the table. Dolby eventually followed with its own submission, although not until 1 1/2 years later. But a problem existed in that both DTS and Dolby claimed that their respective submissions were based in part on intellectual property.
The prospect of one company licensing the other’s technology became the basis of a conflict that did not resolve until a 3rd proposal came forward from UK-based Blue Ripple Sound, for which no intellectual property was claimed. While the Blue Ripple proposal sanitized the standards effort and allowed it to move forward without friction, only Barco publicly announced it would utilize the standard in its products. With only one player on board, neither studios nor exhibitors were getting what they wanted.
Frustration grew. In an effort to do something about it, one studio circled back to the committee mid-year with the proposal to standardize Dolby’s distribution format. The proposal quickly received majority approval in committee. But there was still the problem of intellectual property, compounded by an incomplete patent statement from Dolby the year before that did not disclose promised essential patent claims that would reveal where the company felt infringement would take place. Under pressure to fulfill its obligation to disclose, Dolby submitted a new patent statement end of this month, this time disclaiming the existence of any essential claims. It was a surprising action, but the right thing to do. As a result, the revised standards effort should move forward quickly and efficiently. With no licensing requirement for users of the standard, cinema should have Immersive sound distributions that are as open as 5.1 sound.
More work than currently underway, however, is needed. There remains implementation details such as the manner of packaging the bitstream, and interoperability testing of products that utilize the new standard. Dolby has expressed its concern for backwards compatibility. In practice, perfect backwards compatibility is unlikely, due to the mechanics of standardization. But there are no doubt many permutations of use cases for Atmos that will need to survive, which is where interoperability testing will be important.
Such things take time. At the most aggressive pace, products could appear on the market within 6 months. More likely, it will take at least a year. Some modifications will be required of Dolby CP850s to play both Atmos and SMPTE distributions, and the bet is that Barco will be the first competitor out the gate with interoperable product.
Why now, and not four years ago? The answer to that lies in timing. Four years ago, technology providers were proving themselves in the market. Four years later, Dolby has scored a worldwide installation count for Atmos that is at least a magnitude of order beyond its competitors. That highlights the significance of standardizing Dolby’s distribution format. But a problem exists in that the cinema footprint hasn’t grown enough to incentivize un-subsidized producers to mix immersive soundtracks for their movies. The market needs to grow in a big way, and it needs to do so organically. Dolby can’t drive such growth solo.
Dolby’s move to open up its distribution technology is as magnanimous as it is self-serving. That should not impede praise on Dolby, however, for doing the right thing.