At SMPTE And Showeast, Immersive Sound Standards Debate Continues

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers aims to “harmonize” two proposals: one based on Dolby Atmos and one on DTS' MDA.

The search is on for an unbiased chair to lead a new committee that is being formed by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, aimed at bringing some standards to object-based (also referred to as immersive) sound in cinema.

That won’t be an easy task as it seems most everyone has an opinion on this issue—which is being discussed this week both at the annual SMPTE conference in Hollywood, Calif. and the theater owners confab Showeast in Hollywood, Fla. But the European Broadcasting Union’s Hans Hoffmann—who is the SMPTE board of directors’ standards vp—told The Hollywood Reporter that he does have some candidates in mind and hopes to have a chair in place and a first meeting of the committee before the end of the year.

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The formation of the committee is a response to the immersive new sound systems that have been introduced to exhibitors—which is effectively a two-technology race between Dolby’s Atmos and Barco’s Auro 11.1, both of which represent a significant investment by their manufacturers.

The issue is that each system requires a separate mix and separate deliverable (the digital equivalent of a film print). So there’s been a call for some standards as there are enough stakeholders hesitating to invest in either system until they know that their investment is protected.

SMPTE held a meeting for its various standards efforts in Munich last September, during which two object-based sound proposals were put forth: One is based on the Dolby Atmos system; and the other is DTS’ Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA), which is the option supported by Barco.

“We are creating a new working group to identify where there’s harmonization between the proposals, with the aim of interoperability without constraining the innovation of manufacturers if possible,” Hoffmann told THR. “We respect that there are different approaches, but when it comes to interoperability between sound systems, we should try to achieve harmonization that doesn’t create a burden for users. That’s the aim.”

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DTS vp Ton Kalker noted that one difference between the proposals is that the MDA content format is both open and royality-free. According to a Barco exec, MDA supporters include the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), QSC Audio Products and USL.

Dolby senior vp and Oscar winner Ioan Allen told THR that Dolby is open to standards to minimize stress on the industry, but warned that “you need to maintain some secret sauce, otherwise why would a company bother to invest in R&D.”

Supporters of Dolby’s proposal include Avid, Christie and digital cinema company GDC.

Hoffmann noted that while SMPTE’s effort is aimed at cinema, it could have some impact on broadcast production and distribution.

DTS is separately recommending MDA as a standard in the broadcast chain, to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute.

Twitter: @CGinLA