Google plans to release its own-branded equivalent of Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos 3D audio and is trying to persuade manufacturers to support it, according to a report in Protocol (opens in new tab) (through FlatpanelsHD (opens in new tab)). Protocol says it saw a video of Google’s presentation to hardware manufacturers and that the plan is known as Project Caviar.
Dolby Vision is an advanced HDR format used on most of the best 4K TVs, while Dolby Atmos is supported on most of the best soundbars and is a big selling point right now.
The big push Google is making for manufacturers is that the two new formats would be royalty-free, meaning manufacturers wouldn’t have to pay Google any fees to include support for them. As FlatpanelsHD points out, Dolby Vision costs up to $3 per device to include, and the cost of Dolby Atmos is unconfirmed.
AV aficionados will note here that a royalty-free alternative to Dolby Vision already exists: HDR10+. We’ll come back to that – I suspect it’s relevant to Google’s final plan here.
It seems YouTube is Google’s main focus – the streaming site currently supports basic HDR (known as HDR10), but not the more advanced version of Dolby Vision or HDR10+. And it doesn’t support any 3D audio standards (the two currently in use are usually Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, but Atmos is from distant the best supported option).
But the new formats would also be a boost for Android phones. iPhones include support for Dolby Vision and Atmos, but you don’t get that on Android – Samsung supports HDR10+ and Dolby Atmos, but that’s about it. Google certainly hopes it can convince Netflix, Disney and the rest to support its new formats, so you can get the same HDR and audio quality on all Android devices when streaming on iPhone.
Analysis: Do we really need more audio and HDR formats?
The world of video and audio technology is already quite confusing and full of inscrutable naming conventions. The last thing we need is more of these… but it seems Google’s whole plan is to avoid that, which is smart for two reasons.
Let’s start with the technical side. Under the Protocol, Google says the plan is to “make use of existing codecs” for its new formats (a ‘codec’ is the name of the technology that encodes and compresses video or audio into the files we use). If I had to guess, I’d say Google’s new HDR format will use AV1 video codec and HDR10+ support, both of which are free for manufacturers to use.
The audio side is harder to predict, but royalty-free 3D audio technology already exists. It’s called Multidimensional Audio and it’s used as the basis for Dolby Atmos’ rival DTS:X. My guess is that Google will implement this technology into an existing audio file type.
The advantage of both approaches is that they may require minimal technical changes from TV/phone manufacturers. The hardware needed for all of this is likely on most TVs sold today, so it might just require a software update to support the way Google will combine existing technologies into a ‘fresh’ form factor. Assuming that’s how it works, it should vastly increase the chances of it being supported on TVs in particular.
The second smart thing is that Google’s plan here is to collect all this technology under an “umbrella brand”, and I assume the names are as simple as Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. You probably won’t hear any of the technical terms I mentioned above – they’ll just be called “HDR Sight” and “HDR Sound” or something.
This again gives them a chance to really be remembered – unlike the weird names of HDR10+ or DTS:X.
Opinion: It’s a good idea, but it might be too late
In principle, I’m all for Google’s plan here. There’s no good reason for Dolby to have all the fun here, and the price tag of including Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support in the hardware is a notable part of the total price of something like a streaming stick, so hardware makers can afford it. avoid these fees, but still delivering high quality audio is great.
However, Dolby was basically left to consolidate the idea that its formats are The best way to watch, and this is going to be really hard to take down. Dolby does not charge streaming services to support Dolby Vision or Atmos, which is why they are in use on Netflix, Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, Paramount Plus, Blu-rays, and more. Dolby has fully incorporated its name as what you need if you want the best quality movies and TV.
So, purely on convenience and name recognition, Google is facing an uphill battle. How will he make his own format look like anything other than the budget alternative for the good stuff? Even if Google’s new formats are exactly as good as Dolby’s, they’ll still struggle to make people believe what they are – and Dolby will definitely step up its own game to make sure people feel that way.
And with that in mind, Google needs to convince streaming services to support it. On YouTube, it’s easy – Google already automatically creates different versions of videos on that site, all based on the highest quality original you upload. But that probably won’t be the case for movie streaming sites – studios and directors won’t want versions automatically converted to a different audio or HDR format. They will want remastered and verified movies. That would be a lot of effort.
Google probably hopes that the promise of support on the sheer number of Android devices available will convince the services to add support, but I’m not sure. If people who buy phones didn’t care about 3D audio before, how many would care just because a software update was added?
And if Google can’t ship the services, why would hardware manufacturers? I mentioned that it might be technologically easy to support Google’s new features, but it would still take time, effort, and money – and if it doesn’t look like it would increase sales, why not just save it and stick with Dolby Vision and Atmos only on the best TVs. ?
Hopefully Google can prove me wrong and add a little more competition to this space – it might take a little Vision, though.