Dolby Atmos Just Gave Me an Eargasm

By Michael Carney , written on June 11, 2012

From The News Desk

Wow, that was good. I think my ears need a cold shower and a cigarette.

I just got an early demo of the new Atmos sound system installed by Dolby in the former Kodak Theater (which it had recently taken over). The experience didn’t disappoint. Dolby created Atmos to move away from the “channel model” and to allow content creators to move sound objects dynamically in 3D space. The experience is phenomenal.

“I’ve been telling people that Dolby is delivering a truly immersive experience for years,” says Dolby’s VP of worldwide production services David Gray. “We’re finally telling the truth. 100 percent truth.”

The company played a variety of demos, but the most impressive was from “Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol.” During the “sandstorm scene” myself and the 30 or so other media members were first engulfed by the sound of individual grains of sand and then viscerally experienced a car crash happening in front of us, flying up overhead, and landing behind us.

Dolby has taken over naming rights to what was previously the Kodak Theater, home to the Academy Awards. The company signed a 20-year contract and plans to use the space as a showcase, adding the best of its sound and visual technology. For Atmos, this means 164 loudspeakers, 44 of which are suspended overhead in two 50 foot trusses.

Across these speakers, the technology allows content creators to move 128 independent sound objects around in 3D space at any time. Think of an object like a voice. Rather than dividing 128 voices into a handful of “channels” or zones previously available in the best surround sound systems, they can now be placed anywhere in 3D space within the room. Birds and helicopters overhead, ambient conversations to the left and behind, and earthquakes below.

The result is so different than the previous gold standard, 7.1 Digital Surround Sound, that it needs to be experienced to be appreciated. As part of the demo, we got to view the latest and greatest of Dolby’s 3D video technology as well. While it was some of the most impressive I have personally seen, it was neither new nor anywhere near as impactful as Atmos.

During the Q&A session with Dolby executives following the demo, they were asked how the new technology compared to IMAX. Gray gently informed us that, “This technology is literally on an entirely different playing field. They’re basically a 5.1 system with one ‘voice of god’ overhead. There’s no comparing it.” Having now experienced both firsthand, I could not overstate how right he is.

One of the extreme benefits of Atmos is that it will do the best job to date of “rendering the same spatial sonic experience,” as the company describes it, into a really large or really small room. “In this case, size really doesn’t matter,” says EVP Sales and Marketing Ramzi Haidamus.

What he went on to explain is that a scene or track with 120 objects can be rendered across 10 speakers, 30, or 150, depending on the number available in each facility. In all cases the spatial orientation of the sound imagined of by the artist will be delivered.

Following today’s Dolby Theater sign unveiling, the theater will reopen to the public this Monday for the worldwide premiere of Disney Pixar’s “Brave,” which will take full advantage of the new sound and 3D video technology.

The company also plans to roll out Atmos to as many as 22 additional US theaters in the next two weeks. Between now and the holiday season, it plans to expand to marquee locations across the world. Eventually, Atmos will trickle down to home theaters and in some form or fashion mobile devices.

What’s important at this stage is that the system is entirely backward compatible. Content creators can master their content once and have it play in spaces optimized for Atmos, Dolby 7.1, Dolby 5.1, or a two-channel environment (like a standard TV, PC, or mobile device).

Because Dolby sound technology is currently deployed into 80 percent of worldwide cinemas, 60 percent of TVs, every Windows 7 and Apple computer, and an increasing number of mobile devices, the company is better positioned than anyone in the industry to accomplish a rollout this ambitious. “Our mission is ubiquitous worldwide adoption,” says Haidamus.

“At Dolby, we’re focused on the science and engineering of the entertainment industry,” Dolby CEO Kevin Yeaman says. “But we never forget that at the end of the day this is an emotional experience. We do not invent for the sake of invention. We do it for artists, to give them new ways to tell their stories and connect with audiences. Our mission is to deliver the ‘artist’s intent’ in every story in your lives.”

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]