CinemaCon: A Standard for New Immersive Sound Systems Remains Elusive

Theater owners and studios would like one single production and delivery format for the new systems, but some are questioning whether that is an achievable goal.
Courtesy of Zade Rosenthal/Marvel
'Captain America: Civil War' screened in Dolby Atmos at CinemaCon

As CinemaCon, the annual convention of theater owners, came to a close Thursday, the effort to define technical standards for the new generation of immersive cinema sound systems was no closer to a resolution. Currently there are three competing systems: Dolby’s Atmos, Barco’s Auro Max and DTS:X from DTS. Studio execs complain about being forced to create multiple sound mixes of their movies for those theaters that have installed the systems, even as some exhibitors fret about having to choose one system over another unless they can be confident there will be product to support the system they choose.

To date, the effort to reach a standard has spanned four years and counting. The standards-setting body Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers has a committee that has been leading the effort. RealD’s Pete Lude, its chair, says some parts are agreed, but others are not. He predicts that SMPTE could introduce a standard by early 2017.

Insiders, however, have varying opinions about whether that is an achievable goal, and some believe that in the end, the marketplace might just decide for itself as a sort-of de facto standard emerges.

One contentious issue is how much of the specification should be based on technology that is openly available to all companies. Dolby would like to keep some aspects of its system open, but does not want to reveal all of its proprietary secrets. “We can’t just give away things that allow competitors to compete with us,” Dolby senior vp cinema Doug Darrow told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ve spent eight years developing the Atmos system. We feel like we have done our homework and worked with the industry. But we think others should do their homework and not ride our coattails. I don’t think the industry should allow that to happen or [manufacturers] won’t do that work.”

Launched in 2012, Atmos uses speakers placed along a theater's front, rear and side walls, as well as overhead, that have the ability to play up to 128 channels of sound at once. It has already been installed in or committed to 1,600 theater auditoriums worldwide. It is considered by many to be the most expensive of the new systems, although prices on all such brands vary greatly for a retrofit because of a number of factors, including the existing speakers setup in an auditorium. This year at CinemaCon, Dolby introduced several Atmos technologies, including a new overhead speaker, all aimed at “significantly reducing the costs — up to 40 percent,” said Darrow.

Meanwhile, at CinemaCon, Barco demonstrated AuroMax, an update to its Auro system that accommodates up to 30 channels in an immersive speaker configuration. There are currently 550 Auro systems installed or committed to around the world.

Digital cinema technology developer GDC supports the roughly 100 DTS:X equipped theaters worldwide, all using a GDC immersive sound media server (enabling up to 16 channels of surround sound). At CinemaCon this year, GDC introduced a server with an additional processor that could increase that up to 33 channels.