After pushing AV1 codec, Google goes after Dolby with HDR and audio standards

The Alliance for Open Media logo.
Enlarge / The Alliance for Open Media logo.

Alliance for Open Media

Google can basically do whatever it wants when it comes to video and web standards. YouTube is the world’s most popular video site. Chrome is the world’s most popular browser. Android is the world’s most popular operating system. Anything Google wants to roll out can immediately have a sizable user base of clients, servers, and content. From there, it’s just a matter of getting a few partners to join. This will introduce Google’s next-generation AV1 video codec, and next Google will turn its attention to HDR and 3D audio standards.

Protocol’s Janko Roettgers has a report on “Project Caviar,” Google’s plan to adopt Dolby and create royalty-free alternatives to its HDR standard (Dolby Vision) and 3D audio standard (Dolby Atmos). Dolby’s legacy media business model relies on licensing fees from hardware manufacturers and support from content creators. The company’s technology is deeply embedded in cinemas, Blu-rays, and more modern streaming companies like Apple are big supporters of Dolby technology. It all costs money, though, and Protocol’s report states that $50 streaming sticks end up pouring about $2 of that price to Dolby.

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Surround sound has always been a movie feature, with varying numbers of front, rear and side speakers, but Dolby Atmos is adding to it Height into the equation. If you take a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker setup – that’s three front speakers, two rear, a subwoofer, and for 7.1 two side speakers – Dolby Atmos adds four overhead speakers to the mix, allowing the sound to pan across the viewer . Atmos is supported by Apple, Netflix, HBO Max and Disney+.

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Google approaches Dolby through the standards group “Alliance for Open Media,” whose group of “founding members” includes Amazon, Apple, Arm, Google, Intel, Meta, Microsoft, Mozilla, Netflix, Nvidia, and Samsung. This is the same group behind the AV1 standard that grew out of Google’s purchase of On2 and open-sourcing its video codec.

Neither Dolby Vision nor Atmos competitors require the development of new codecs. Google’s strategy is largely about standardizing on a method of sending audio and video that doesn’t pay for Dolby and brands it well enough to be competitive. First, the group has already posted specifications for an “immersive audio container” that describes itself as a “codec-agnostic audio bitstream format for delivering three-dimensional sound fields that can be used for multi-channel sound playback.” For HDR, the group wants to adopt the HDR10+ standard, which was originally invented by Samsung but lacks content.

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It is not yet known which consumer-facing brand these standards will apply to. That’s a big deal, because the “Dolby” name still holds sway among home theater enthusiasts, and it means streaming apps can market the Dolby brand as a premium add-on, creating demand for the standards. Few companies have enough media clout to drive a new standard, but Google is one of them. As we’ve already seen with AV1, supporting YouTube, Android, Chrome and any hardware manufacturer that wants to license access to YouTube is a powerful stick.

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