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Why Google is pushing for open media formats

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Thursday, we’re exploring why Google is taking on Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision. Also: A new Chromecast, better WebAR, and synthetic stock photos.

The story behind Google’s Project Caviar

Google is doubling down on open media: The company is getting ready to take on Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision with a pair of royalty-free formats for HDR video and 3D audio, I was first to report yesterday.

Internally known as Project Caviar, this represents one of the most significant efforts to get the industry to adopt open media formats since Google first began investing in the development of video codecs over a decade ago.

  • Project Caviar is based on HDR10+ for video and the Alliance for Open Media’s Immersive Audio Container format for 3D audio.
  • Google wants to strengthen both those efforts with a new umbrella brand that can better compete with Dolby’s branding.
  • The company is looking to establish a dedicated implementer’s forum to get streaming services and hardware makers to adopt the formats and brand.
  • Project Caviar will also be used to bring more immersive media experiences to YouTube, and give people a way to capture and share HDR video and 3D audio without professional tools and equipment.

This isn’t Google’s first rodeo in open media. The company acquired the codec maker On2 in 2009 and went on to open source On2’s video codecs. Google also played a major role in the founding of the Alliance for Open Media and its subsequent development of the AV1 video codec.

  • Google has long positioned its investment in open media as an altruistic effort, arguing that streaming needs royalty-free formats to be as successful as the open web.
  • Of course, the company also has had financial incentives for backing open codecs: MPEG LA, the group in charge of licensing the H.264 video codec, initially signaled that it may charge free streaming services like YouTube royalties for the use of H.264 starting in 2016.
  • Following Google’s release of an open alternative, MPEG LA announced that free services would never have to pay a cent for using H.264.
  • In other words: Even if Google didn’t succeed in replacing H.264 with open alternatives, it still used the threat of a royalty-free format to get concessions from MPEG LA.

The situation is a bit different for Project Caviar. Dolby has opted to make Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision free to all streaming services, and essentially uses Netflix and its competitors as brand ambassadors. So why does Google care if Dolby charges hardware makers a few bucks for adding Atmos and Vision to their devices?

  • One reason is Google’s own hardware business. The company is making phones, speakers, earbuds, and streaming devices, and it doesn’t really want to pay royalties for each device it sells.
  • That’s especially true for lower-end devices, which are generally being sold at cost. An industry source told me that the licensing fees for Dolby Digital and Dolby Vision amount to $2 for a cheap set-top box.
  • It’s probably no coincidence that Google’s new Chromecast HD, which retails for $30, supports HDR10+ but not Dolby Vision.
  • There’s also the impact of these fees on the broader Android device ecosystem: Right now, only Xiaomi has adopted Dolby Vision for some of its handsets. A widely adopted alternative to Dolby Vision could help other Android device makers keep costs in check.

There’s also the impact these royalties can have on future innovations. Right now, Atmos is primarily being added to sound bars and wireless earbuds, and Vision is mostly being used to enhance Hollywood fare on big-screen TVs.

  • However, Sonos is already rumored to have Atmos-enabled high-end speakers in the works, and it’s likely that 3D audio will become a major part of in-home listening across a wide range of products.
  • Google also wants to push Project Caviar as a way to popularize the capture of HDR video, which requires broad buy-in from mobile device makers.
  • Finally, there’s the promise of AR and other forms of spatial computing, which not only require 3D audio, but could also one day benefit from HDR and other forms of immersive video.

In other words: Google wants to save some money on these formats today, but it also wants to make sure that Dolby doesn’t become a major headache for its business in the future.

— Janko Roettgers

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Making moves

Google officially releases Chromecast HD

Preempting its own fall hardware release event, Google officially introduced the Chromecast with Google TV HD streaming adapter today. The device, which I first told you about in January, is essentially a 1080p version of the existing Chromecast with Google TV streamer. It even ships with the same remote.

The big news: Google is selling the device for just $29.99, putting it squarely into the inflation gadgets category.

  • The device features a new chipset that is capable of playing AV 1 video, but once again only ships with 8GB of storage space for apps.
  • Chromecast HD will ship with Android 12, while the 4K version is still on Android 10.
  • However, Chromecast product manager Jess Bonner told me this week that an update for the 4K Chromecast is coming “in the near future.”

Niantic is bringing its location-based AR tech to the web

Following its acquisition of web-based AR startup 8th Wall in March, Niantic has now combined its own developer tools with 8th Wall’s WebAR SDK. The result, which the company calls Lightship VPS for Web, will allow developers to build lightweight AR experiences that can be anchored to specific locations and don’t require people to download dedicated apps.

  • In addition to letting people unlock AR experiences at a store or inside a stadium, Niantic’s visual positioning system also includes detailed 3D scans of tens of thousands of notable places, including sculptures, buildings, and more.
  • This allows developers to build AR experiences that interact with their environment with “centimeter-level accuracy,” as Kjell Bronder, a senior director of product management for the company's Augmented Reality and Geodata Platform, told me earlier this year.

"At Niantic, we believe that the real-world metaverse should get people exploring and connecting in the world around them," CEO John Hanke said in a press release. "We can't wait to see what location-based AR experiences our developer community will create with this new tool."

— Janko Roettgers

In other news

YouTube plans to start sharing revenue with Shorts creators. The video service aims to expand its creator program to Shorts sometime early next year.

Spotify is adding audiobooks to its catalog. The music service is offering more than 300,000 titles from major publishers for sale; Spotify is also considering subscription and ad-supported options for audiobooks.

Logitech will sell its cloud gaming handheld for $300 at launch. The device features a 7-inch screen and will offer access to Xbox Cloud Gaming, Steam Link, and NVIDIA GeForce Now, and will cost $350 following its introductory discount.

The theme park industry is rediscovering VR. Some ride operators have also started to experiment with AR glasses.

Why Snap shut down Zenly. Snap didn’t want to sell the social mapping platform and decided to pull the plug instead, according to insiders.

Warner Music names YouTube exec Robert Kyncl as its new CEO.Kyncl previously served as YouTube’s chief business officer and led the service’s original content initiatives.

Sony believes in Hollywood-like windowing for PS Plus. PlayStation Indies head Shuhei Yoshida said at an industry event that the company wants to keep charging for new titles before they become available to subscribers of its PS Plus service, much like Hollywood has done with movies that premiere in theaters before becoming more widely available.

77% of gamers play multiplayer games. That’s just one of the tidbits in Unity’s new Multiplayer Report, which the company released this week.

AI Getty

Now this is interesting: Getty Images has banned AI-generated media from its service. Creators are not allowed to upload any images made with DALL-E, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, or similar services.

“There are real concerns with respect to the copyright of outputs from these models and unaddressed rights issues with respect to the imagery, the image metadata and those individuals contained within the imagery,” Getty Images CEO Craig Peters told The Verge about this step.

Perhaps Peters was also turned off by AI-generated images with watermarks that look suspiciously like those from Getty and its competitor Shutterstock, suggesting that these stock photo sites are being used as training data.

However, Getty’s decision makes me wonder what we will see first: a stock photo site that only hosts AI-generated images, or a stock photo site for AI where you can buy training data in bulk to feed your algorithms with copyright-cleared photos?

— Janko Roettgers

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