Dolby Atmos: The Virtualization of Surround Sound

May 3, 2012

Dolby is on a quest to bring movie theater sound to the next level. At this year’s CinemaCon, Dolby introduced a new surround sound platform called Dolby Atmos. Unlike the incremental change from 5.1 to 7.1 channel surround sound, Atmos is a fundamental change in how audio is authored for and delivered in the movie theater.

From the consumer’s point of view, Dolby Atmos promises to create a more enveloping and precise sound field in the movie theater. Sounds will be rendered with a much larger array of speakers throughout the theater including overhead ones. Dolby Atmos provides the ability to make a sound come from almost any part of the theater. In contrast, while home and movie theater surround speakers are very good at delivering ambient sounds, they aren’t able to place sounds in specific spots around the room. For example, while today’s surround sound set ups are good at rendering the sound of crickets, providing a precise location for a gun shot is difficult. Yes Michael Bay, I feel your pain. Atmos achieves this precision by supporting up to 64 discrete channels of audio (62.2). However, other options such as 22.2, 11.1, 7.1, 5.1 and 2.0 are supported (the second number is low frequency or subwoofer channels).

Atmos is more than a a new surround format, it’s a platform. On the authoring side, content creators will be able to create audio objects and define their movement around the theater. It’s a shift from how content creators currently focus is on what goes onto specific audio tracks. Instead, Atmos will take the audio objects and figure out how to render them given a theater’s specific characteristics including the number of speakers, geometry and size. Content creators will no longer need to author separate soundtracks for 5.1 and 7.1 channel set ups in movie theaters. The Dolby Atmos platform is essentially virtualizing the soundtrack of a movie. Many discrete channels of audio are rendered optimally on any number of speaker configurations.

This year, about 10 to 15 theaters will be equipped for Atmos in the United States, Europe, China and Japan. The technology is due for a wide-spread roll-out in 2013. The new Disney-Pixar movie, Brave, is the first film to be mixed with Dolby Atmos.

Dolby Atmos appears to have a compelling technology to improve the movie-going experience. Given that we won’t have the technology in the home for some time, it gives consumers a good reason to see a movie in the theater. Soon as I find out where you can hear Dolby Atmos in person, I’ll let you know.

Dolby Atmos Movie Theater

A theater equipped for Dolby Atmos. Notice the overhead speakers


Tags: Dolby, movie theaters, surround

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