The battle over next-generation “immersive audio” is afoot, even if its top two major competitors are playing nice on the surface. For now. NATO’s pushing the theatrical innovation hard this year at CinemaCon, where industry leader Dolby scored crucial placement of its Dolby Atmos system in the main Coliseum theater for all major studio events. Today reps for Dolby and #2 rival Barco spoke in a panel discussion of how they, studios, and theater owners might work together to establish standards that would allow both Dolby Atmos and Barco’s Auro 11.1 immersive audio systems to co-exist. But some on the periphery are expecting a full-blown format war to erupt leaving a single victor dominating the field globally — and so theater owners are treading carefully. Theater upgrades to either premium audio system will involve the costly installation of additional speakers. Nobody wants to invest in a losing format. Especially after spending big cash to convert to digital.

Studios and filmmakers are also caught in the middle. To push the 3D envelope to get more butts in seats at premium ticket prices, the choice is between Dolby Atmos’s directional audio or Auro 11.1’s three-layer sound immersion. DreamWorks Animations’ March hit The Croods was the first major release mixed in native Auro 11.1. (The Fox-released July animation Turbo is also Auro 11.1, inked in a 15-pic deal with DWA.) Brian Vessa, Executive Director of Digital Audio Mastering at Sony, is pushing for common system-agnostic delivery formats and tools for filmmakers that can be translated and played in any equipped theater regardless of which system they’ve implemented. He hopes industry standards can be achieved within two years. But Dolby is dominating with a slate of summer 2013 pics in their Dolby Atmos format, including WB’s Man Of Steel, Pacific Rim, and Gravity, Paramount’s Star Trek Into Darkness, Disney’s Marvel’s Iron Man 3 and Monsters University, and Fox’s Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters and Wolverine. “It’s much too loud”, complained a few of Dolby’s competitors to me of Dolby Atmos’s ear-splitting CinemaCon presentations. Then again, who knows if audiences will notice? Cautioned Marcus Theaters’ Director Projection Technology Mark Collins: “As we saw with digital cinema, some people don’t know the difference at all”.