Dolby's Atmos brings truly immersive theatre experience to home -- and phone
From Anand Parthasarathy
Bangalore, May 4 2015: A few years ago, I had the opportunity to view an Oscar-nominated movie in the preview theatre at the glass-encased global headquarters of Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco. The theatre actually 'floats' on a 15 cm-thick pad of air and rubber to insulate it from all outside sounds. The technology they were showing was '7.1 Surround'; but a Dolby engineer admitted the term was not strictly true. For sound that truly surrounds, it must come from both around and above -- and hop from speaker to speaker with the action on the screen. "We working on it ... one day you can experience it at home or on the phone in your pocket!" he told me.
Last week his prediction came true: Dolby Atmos, the first truly immersive surround sound theatre experience, was offered on a phone in india: The Lenovo A7000 is the world's first smart phone with Atmos (Read our review here).
It is also coming to two tablet models by Lenovo --Tab 2 A8 and Tab 2 A10-70 , 8 and 10 inch respectively -- by June. Expect others to follow.
Atmos is the arguably the biggest jump in the cinematic audio technology, since Dr Ray Dolby first "invented" noise reduction, fifty years ago. In the real world, sound comes to us from all around. Our ears are very good at identifying what comes from where. While most movie sound system use 5 or 7 tracks to create a realistic experience, it would take some 128 tracks to achieve a near-total surround effect. Atmos uses clever math to overcome this hurdle. It chops up the film's sound track into audio "objects" which a computer moves in a 3-D space and hands over to a particular speaker depending on the action on-screen. A car horn, the whirring of helicopter blades, a child crying as she runs -- can be precisely choreographed to move from speaker to speaker in a direction that mimics the action.
Since 2012, some 275 films have been made with Atmos -- 100 of them are in India. Sathyam Cinema in Chennai was the first Indian movie hall equipped with Dolby Atmos. All the major chains -- PVR, Inox, SPI, Fun, Cinepolis combined -- have together, some 60 screens across the country: it costs between Rs 15 lakhs and Rs 30 lakhs to convert a theatre for Atmos.
For home theatre owners, it can be a small challenge to get the 'above' sound experience. Ceiling speakers are a hassle -- so Dolby has come up with a clever way solution: Upward-firing speakers: pedestal mounted floor speakers which are beamed to the roof so that the sound bounces off the ceiling. It takes a minimum of 6 speakers to get the full Atmos-pheric effect. You can use your existing speakers but you need to add an Atmos sound processor. Indian movie content has started appearing with Atmos: the first was the Blu-ray disk of "Mary Kom" with a Dolby Atmos sound track.
After Lenovo, Atmos on smartphones may soon be the norm, though the experience would be hardly impressive through the phone's tiny speakers. But any good pair of speakers coupled with a Dolby Atmos-enabled mobile phone or tablet (which means it is fuelled by one of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 805 phone chips) and Atmos- enhanced video or audio content, will provide crisper dialogue, loudness without distortion and an all-enveloping experience that has not hitherto been possible outside a theatre. In these hurry-burry times that may be all that customers want or can afford to give them that luxurious cinema hall feeling.
Sight and Sound: a timeline of movie audio
1927: Introduction of sound in film with "The Jazz Singer"
1950s: Magnetic stripping on film allows multi channel theatre sound
1965: Dolby Laboratories founded in UK by Ray Dolby, former UN Technical Adviser in India;
moves company to San Francisco, US in 1967
1969 Dolby patents noise reduction technology for audio tape. It works by increasing the
volume of low-level high-frequency sounds during recording and reducing them during playback.
This brings down tape hiss.
1975: Dolby Stereo launched
1980: Dolby ProLogic for Home theatres
1990: Dolby Digital 5.1 for theatres
1991: Rival system DTS or Digital Theatre System launched with support from Steven
Spielberg who uses it for "Jurassic Park", in 1993
2010: Dolby Surround 7.1
2012: Dolby Atmos
2015: Dolby Atmos for mobile devices