We caught up with the Director of Marketing for DTS, Anthony Wilkins, at the Home Cinema Choice Awards recently.
DTS were sponsoring the event and were only too happy to speak about the company's plans for the future and being part of the Blu-ray revolution….
TechRadar: Tell us a little bit about the roots of DTS...
Anthony Wilkins: DTS started off in the cinema. Cinema sound wasn't as good as it could be, so a small bunch of engineers thought that there must be a better way to create movie audio.
So what they did was take the audio completely off the film and use a separate media, which at the time was CD-Rom, and use a timecode strip on the film to synch the whole thing.
TR: What was the first film?
AW: Jurassic Park became the first movie with DTS on. There's a great story about the engineers found themselves in Steven Spielberg's office, with him announcing that he was doing a dinosaur movie and saying "I want you to work on the sound". From that moment, the engineers had to turn what was essentially a 'back of the envelope' sketch into a full-blown sound concept for 900 theatres in the US.
TR: Sounds like a dream beginning…
AW: It was a great start. The technology then evolved to home theatre, and over the years that has involved with an improvement of the codec itself.
Up until the middle of last year, the home cinema consumer part of DTS worked in parallel with the cinema business.
The decision was made a couple of years ago, however, that we should concentrate our efforts on the consumer part of the business, so we sold off the rights to the cinema arm in 2008.
The cinema business is now under the name DTS Digital Cinema. It is a new company with new owners. They kept the old logo, and we rebranded to the logo we have now.
TR: Where do you see yourself in the AV industry?
AW: We are currently still niche in the home entertainment market, with a very good reputation as a high-performance alternative. As a company, however, we are seeing that change now.
We have a very loyal band of enthusiasts, but a wider audience is now becoming aware of what DTS is and what we do.
TR: Do you think Blu-ray has been a part of DTS' recent consumer success?
AW: One of the comments people gave us a few years ago was 'why don't I see that many DVDs with a DTS soundtrack on them?'
The reason was simple: we were not a mandatory audio format with DVD; we were optional and as a result there was less of an incentive with studios to put a DTS soundtrack on. Thankfully Blu-ray has changed all that.
You wouldn't believe how long these contracts take to actually come to signing on the line.
It was five, six, seven years' background work to get DTS on the Blu-ray standard. It was a huge amount of work to get it finalised but it we are extremely pleased that we are now mandatory on Blu-ray.
TR: So every BD machine has to have DTS capabilities?
AW: When we talk about mandatory, it is on the playback side. When you are creating Blu-ray hardware you must have a DTS decoder in your Blu-ray player. As a result there is a lot more incentive for studios to go the DTS route. So it is hugely important and significant for us as a company.
We have seen, especially in recent months, a great uptake from studios. We always had Fox and Universal right from the beginning on Blu-ray. Most significantly in recent months Disney has come on board, choosing DTS as the codec of choice.
Wall-E is a great example of this. The UK release has a DTS-HD Master Audio track on it, and that's a real flagship movie.
TR: Are you happy with the way Blu-ray has been received by the general public?
AW: There's an increasing awareness at the high-end home cinema market, that more and more people are making the leap from high-end to Blu-ray.
In terms of Blu-ray as a format, we are happy with the way it is going. Many people may tell you that Blu-ray is not taking off yet. But in terms of its evolution, Blu-ray is ahead of where DVD was (at the same point). If you look at the 'two-year from starting point' timeline, Blu-ray is faring better.
At the moment Blu-ray is fantastic for what it does. I'm sure in the future we will move on to some other sort of content delivery system.
TR: Why has nobody else come on board to compete against you and Dolby?
AW: Because it is so difficult to go from nowhere to design a codec that works, which is probably the easier part, finding the mathematical algorithm and all that, and actually get it licensed by hardware manufacturers and to persuade content creators to encode with it and build the infrastructure. It is all very hard.
We faced that difficulty ourselves as Dolby had been out for years and had a massive head start. When we came to the market we had to climb that hill. We've been doing this for nearly 14 years now and it's been a crazy ride.
TR: What changes has DTS seen change in those years?
AW: It's a combination of disc capacity, going from DVD to Blu-ray has meant we can now be on the discs alongside Dolby. Back when it was just DVD, you were very happy if you won a spot on the disc. This choice means that the real winner now is the consumer.
The higher disc capacity also means that audio can now be hi-def. Even though we still implement a compression technique because of a need to reduce file size, the sound you can now get is extraordinary.
Couple this with the general consumer acceptance of a hi-def video experience and it means that consumers now demand audio to match picture quality.
TR: Do you think that consumers are confused when it comes to audio format choices?
AW: There is still confusion amongst consumers about terminology and technology. Especially about what they need in terms of getting HD.
If you are authoring on Blu-ray you have got three options. You either go linear PCM, where you have to make a compromise between how much bitrate you give picture and extras, or you go the compressed route and you have to choose between Dolby and DTS.
But any technology-based industry faces the difficulty of consumer education. With respect to the AV industry in general, it's near impossible to simplify things. People ask me about the issue of connectivity: 'How do I connect this to this? I've got HDMI, components etc.' It's a minefield of concerns.
It is the jobs of companies like ourselves to try and de-mystify that. One of the things we are trying to implement this year, is to get some training programme for shop staff – the licensee.
If they are more informed, then the consumer in turn will become more informed. This is something that we need to be accountable for.
TR: Do you think demystification would alienate your core enthusiasts who have taken it upon themselves to learn and understand the ins and outs of AV?
AW: From our point of view, we want everyone to understand DTS. Demystifying the technology is something we need to do in the industry as a whole.
TR: DTS recently branched out into the gaming sector, can you explain what this is about?
AW: Up until recently we haven't really taken the gaming business as our core. It hadn't been a high priority, but now we are looking to strengthen our business and we saw gaming as an opportunity to do this. So we have made a financial and personal investment to try and build and get involved with the gaming side, with Neural Surround.
We also over the last year or so invested into the virtual side of things, so for the PC market we have products like Surround Sensation.
While we are still primarily focused on our core, which is home cinema, we have reached DTS-HD Master Audio. We have reached lossless audio which is comparable to PCM, so you could argue that this is a pinnacle. You can't improve on PCM.
TR: Dolby demoed 9.1 audio at CES. Are you looking into adding more channels?
AW: I don't want to play the numbers game, but we demoed something much bigger this year: 11.1.
When you use 5.1, there's little differentiation in the layout you can use. When it comes to 7.1 there are a multitude of layouts that one could legitimately describe as 7.1.
When we showed 11.1, we came up with a concept called 'Neo X' – where 'X' could be any number within reason. 'X' for CES was 11.
What we did was take 7.1 source material and through post-processing we up-mixed it to 11.1. The layout we used was a standard 7.1 layout with 90-degree sides and 135-degree rear surrounds.
So we added another pair of rears between the surrounds and the back surrounds and we took an additional pair of front left-right highs.
That was what we showed. It could be 11, it could be 9, it could be 13, it could be 366. The Master Audio algorithm is very expandable.
One of the advantages that we had when we developed our original algorithm was the it was extensible, so the core algorithm gets an extension wrapped round it. It's essentially future-proof – as much as that sort of thing can be.
TR: Finally, what's your favourite DTS Blu-ray track?
AW: It's got to be Hellboy II. From an audio point of view, with the 7.1 Master Audio. It's just fantastic.
To read more about the Home Cinema Choice Awards, point your browser to HomeCinemaChoice.com.