Google wants to take on Dolby with new open media formats

The company wants to establish an open, royalty-free alternative to Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision. The project is known internally as Project Caviar.

Google wants to take on Dolby with new open media formats

Google shared plans for the media formats, which are internally known as Project Caviar, at a closed-door event with hardware manufacturers earlier this year.

Illustration: iStock/Getty Images Plus; Protocol

Google is gunning for Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision: The company is looking to introduce two new media formats to offer HDR video and 3D audio under a new consumer-recognizable brand without the licensing fees hardware manufacturers currently have to pay Dolby.

Google shared plans for the media formats, which are internally known as Project Caviar, at a closed-door event with hardware manufacturers earlier this year. In a video of the presentation that was leaked to Protocol, group product manager Roshan Baliga describes the goal of the project as building “a healthier, broader ecosystem” for premium media experiences.

Google didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The company’s primary focus for Project Caviar is YouTube, which does not currently support Dolby Atmos or Dolby Vision. However, Google also aims to bring other industry players on board, including device manufacturers and service providers. This makes Project Caviar one of Google’s most ambitious pushes for open media formats since the company began working on royalty-free video codecs over a decade ago.

Dolby’s fees can add up for manufacturers

Google’s open media efforts have until now primarily focused on the development of codecs. The company acquired video codec maker On2 in 2009 to open source some of its technology; it has also played a significant role in the foundation of the Alliance for Open Media, an industry consortium that is overseeing the royalty-free AV1 video codec.

Project Caviar is different from those efforts in that it is not another codec. Instead, the project focuses on 3D audio and HDR video formats that make use of existing codecs but allow for more rich and immersive media playback experiences, much like Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision do.

Baliga didn’t mention Dolby by name during his presentation, but he still made it abundantly clear that the company was looking to establish alternatives to the Atmos and Vision formats. “We realized that there are premium media experiences where there aren’t any great royalty-free solutions,” he said, adding that the licensing costs for premium HDR video and 3D audio “can hurt manufacturers and consumers.”

Dolby makes most of its money through licensing fees from hardware manufacturers. The company charges TV manufacturers $2 to $3 to license Dolby Vision, according to its Cloud Media Solutions SVP Giles Baker. Dolby hasn’t publicly disclosed licensing fees for Atmos; it charges consumers who want to add immersive audio to their Xbox consoles $15 per license, but the fee hardware manufacturers have to pay is said to be significantly lower.

“We realized that there are premium media experiences where there aren’t any great royalty-free solutions.”

Still, in an industry that long has struggled with razor-thin margins, every extra dollar matters. That’s especially true because Dolby already charges virtually all device makers a licensing fee for its legacy audio codecs. A manufacturer of streaming boxes that wholesale for $50 has to pay around $2 per unit for Dolby Vision and Dolby Digital, according to a document an industry insider shared with Protocol.

“For lower-cost living room devices, the cost may be prohibitive,” Baliga said during his presentation.

HDR10+ didn’t become a household name

Google isn’t the first company that is trying to establish an alternative to Dolby’s formats. Samsung in particular has long resisted paying Dolby more money than necessary. The TV maker co-developed HDR10+ as a royalty-free alternative to Dolby Vision, and isn’t supporting Dolby Vision on any of its TV sets.

However, attempts to make HDR10+ a household name have largely failed. That’s in part because of Dolby’s strong existing brand, as well as its licensing strategy: Instead of charging streaming services for the use of Dolby Vision, the company has been using these distributors as evangelists for the format, allowing them to market it as a premium feature. Dolby Vision has gained support from many services, including Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max.

Dolby CFO Robert Park called this arrangement a key factor for the success of Dolby Vision during a recent fireside chat. “Having the distribution partners wanting to distribute our technology was brilliant,” Park said. “If we tried to monetize everything in this ecosystem, you would probably see a fraction of the brands you see today. Where we make money is on the playback, and we get our fair share.”

The company is set to repeat that success story in the audio space, where services like Apple Music are betting on Dolby Atmos to become the de facto standard for spatial audio.

Some companies are trying to establish an alternative under the umbrella of the Alliance for Open Media, whose members include Amazon, Google, Netflix, Meta and Samsung, among others. The group is currently developing a new audio format called Immersive Audio Container that is meant to deliver 3D experiences using a variety of open codecs.

However, it’s unlikely that the Immersive Audio Container project would be able to compete with the branding of Dolby Atmos on its own. That’s why Google is now looking to establish a new umbrella band for both HDR10+ and 3D immersive audio, which would be governed by an industry forum and made available for free to hardware manufacturers and service providers.

Google has a lot of influence on hardware manufacturers

In addition to making these new formats available for free, Google also wants to make them more attractive to device manufacturers and consumers alike by adding functionality beyond what Dolby Atmos and Vision offer. On the audio side, this includes greater flexibility around a larger variety of audio setups.

For video, Google wants to focus on capture, allowing consumers to record video in HDR10+ and then share it via YouTube and other services. “We want users to be able to capture in these premium formats and get better-quality video,” Baliga told device manufacturers during his presentation.

“If we tried to monetize everything in this ecosystem, you would probably see a fraction of the brands you see today."

Google is well-positioned to push the industry to adopt Project Caviar. Apple has thrown its support behind Dolby Vision, but the format has gained close to zero support from Android phone manufacturers, giving Google an opening to promote a royalty-free alternative with a big focus on video capture.

At the same time, Google has a lot of influence on the makers of smart TVs and streaming devices, thanks to YouTube being a must-have app. Google has previously used this influence to push companies like Roku to support the AV1 video codec, and could do so again to advance Project Caviar.

For Dolby, increased competition could have significant financial consequences. The company still makes most of its money with its legacy codecs, but Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision have been the fastest-growing parts of its business. In its fiscal year 2021, Dolby generated 25% of its revenue with Atmos, Vision and its imaging patents, according to Park, who told the audience of the William Blair 42nd Annual Growth Stock Conference in June that he fully expects this line of business to become as big as Dolby’s legacy codec business over time.

LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

Photo: Nat Rubio-Licht/Protocol

LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

But with growth comes growing pains. Los Angeles, especially the burgeoning Silicon Beach area — which includes Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey — shares something in common with its namesake Silicon Valley: a severe lack of housing.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

While there remains debate among economists about whether we are officially in a full-blown recession, the signs are certainly there. Like most executives right now, the outlook concerns me.

In any case, businesses aren’t waiting for the official pronouncement. They’re already bracing for impact as U.S. inflation and interest rates soar. Inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022 — the highest increase since November 1981 — and the Federal Reserve is targeting an interest rate of 3% by the end of this year.

Keep Reading Show less
Nancy Sansom

Nancy Sansom is the Chief Marketing Officer for Versapay, the leader in Collaborative AR. In this role, she leads marketing, demand generation, product marketing, partner marketing, events, brand, content marketing and communications. She has more than 20 years of experience running successful product and marketing organizations in high-growth software companies focused on HCM and financial technology. Prior to joining Versapay, Nancy served on the senior leadership teams at PlanSource, Benefitfocus and PeopleMatter.


SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.

This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.


These two AWS vets think they can finally solve enterprise blockchain

Vendia, founded by Tim Wagner and Shruthi Rao, wants to help companies build real-time, decentralized data applications. Its product allows enterprises to more easily share code and data across clouds, regions, companies, accounts, and technology stacks.

“We have this thesis here: Cloud was always the missing ingredient in blockchain, and Vendia added it in,” Wagner (right) told Protocol of his and Shruthi Rao's company.

Photo: Vendia

The promise of an enterprise blockchain was not lost on CIOs — the idea that a database or an API could keep corporate data consistent with their business partners, be it their upstream supply chains, downstream logistics, or financial partners.

But while it was one of the most anticipated and hyped technologies in recent memory, blockchain also has been one of the most failed technologies in terms of enterprise pilots and implementations, according to Vendia CEO Tim Wagner.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.


Kraken's CEO got tired of being in finance

Jesse Powell tells Protocol the bureaucratic obligations of running a financial services business contributed to his decision to step back from his role as CEO of one of the world’s largest crypto exchanges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kraken is going through a major leadership change after what has been a tough year for the crypto powerhouse, and for departing CEO Jesse Powell.

The crypto market is still struggling to recover from a major crash, although Kraken appears to have navigated the crisis better than other rivals. Despite his exchange’s apparent success, Powell found himself in the hot seat over allegations published in The New York Times that he made insensitive comments on gender and race that sparked heated conversations within the company.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Latest Stories