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Immersive Sound: Bottom-Up Market Demand

Initially debuting in cinemas in 2012, immersive—or 3D—sound has moved with lightning speed into the living room compared to previous multichannel audio formats.

Initially debuting in cinemas in 2012, immersive—or 3D—sound has moved with lightning speed into the living room compared to previous multichannel audio formats. But while the major movie studios and independent film post production facilities have been busily retrofitting rooms to handle the new platform in its various object- and channel-based formats, will immersive sound playback capabilities in the home drive demand for content creation beyond the movie theater?

The uptake by the consumer market of new technologies originating in the movie theater does appear to be accelerating. Dolby’s Dolby Digital (or AC-3) introduced 5.1 sound into cinemas in the summer of 1992, but it was to be five years before the DVD spec was finalized, and another three years before DVD-Audio became a reality. In contrast, immersive audio debuted in cinemas in 2012—in the form of Auro-3D in January of that year with Red Tails and Dolby Atmos in June with Brave—and by September 2014 was available, on Blu-ray Disc, in the home.

Consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers have already made a large selection of immersive audio-capable receivers and speakers available for home theaters—beginning ahead of any content being available, in fact. Dolby Labs, for example, announced in early September that Denon, Integra, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Steinway Lyngdorf, Trinnov Audio and Yamaha are all making Dolby Atmos AV receivers or pre-processors. Manufacturers developing Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers and add-on modules, enabling reproduction of the all-important height or overhead sound elements in the living room, include Atlantic Technology, Definitive Technology, KEF, Onkyo, Pioneer USA, Teufel and Triad Speakers.

Onkyo is also the first manufacturer to introduce a Dolby Atmos-equipped home theater-in-a-box system. A single-box solution might be attractive to consumers, but might immersive set-ups, with their added height speakers, be difficult to configure correctly in the home?

Will consumers even reach for their credit cards to purchase immersive home audio systems, or will they be distracted by the latest video technologies, such as 4K, HDR and greater frame rates? Here’s a clue: 4K display shipments for Q3 2014 were up 500 percent over Q3 2013.

Also worth considering from recent history is that DVD-Audio and SACD content, although still being released, largely faded from sight due to market confusion and bad timing. With the launch of Apple’s iTunes just months after the DVD-A spec was finalized, convenience and quantity easily trumped quality.

With Auro-3D, DTS and Dolby Atmos all offering playback of immersive content in the home, and broadcast and streaming delivery schemes such as NHK’s 22.2, MPEG-H 3D Audio and ECMA-407 also currently or soon available, could there be another detrimental format war?

Happily, many of the immersive format developers are publically espousing interoperability and the need to develop a standard. A SMPTE working group is already moving toward just such a standard, with the TC-25CSS Audio Technology Committee on Cinema Sound Systems currently developing an interoperable, immersive audio format for digital cinema. That work, partly a result of lobbying by Hollywood content creators and movie theater owners, will reportedly be published by the end of 2015. As SMPTE is quick to point out, innovations in the cinema often trickle down to home systems.

Adopting a single standard, whether it supports object-based or channel-based formats, or both, will certainly help content creators. As noted in the preview of the AES 57th Conference on the “Future of Audio Entertainment Technology—Cinema, Television and the Internet,” to be held in Hollywood, CA in March 2015, “some 350 different distribution versions were required for Captain America: The Winter Soldier release— most of the variations due to sound requirements.” An immersive standard enabling post producers to generate one mix that played on any platform might remove a considerable hurdle for content creators.

Home entertainment-specific mixes require post-production facilities to either move the mix into a smaller environment to adjust it for living room playback or set up nearfield speakers on the re-recording stage. There will need to be a proliferation of smaller mix rooms equipped for immersive projects—at least matching the 5.1+4 or 7.1+4 configurations (+4 indicating the number of height speakers) expected to become popular in the home—to facilitate production of significant quantities of content.

There are already indications that cable and OTT content distributors will drive initial demand for immersive titles. Streaming services Vudu and Amazon, via its Fire mobile platform, already have the ability to deliver Atmos content, and cable companies and OTT broadcasters are not far behind.

Object-based schemes, in particular, hold the immediate promise of personalization, headphone and sound bar virtualization, and accessibility, especially on mobile platforms, the most prolific playback devices on earth. That could well drive demand for immersive content.

As noted by Roger Charlesworth, executive director of the DTV Audio Group, at the recent LiveTV forum in Hollywood, “This has happened incredibly fast, because of the transition to streaming. The rate of change is really phenomenal.”