When the words Dolby Digital are uttered, most people immediately associate them as "that company that does sound for theaters and receivers." Well, while that may be true there is a whole other side of the company that I was about ready to explore. This past week I was fortunate to be part of a small group of individuals invited out to Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco. The group consisted of owners and writers from various Home Theater websites. There was no press. Dolby specifically noted that they were not looking for any coverage. It seemed that the true intent of inviting us out was to gauge our opinions of where Dolby stands today in the market and in what ways we thought they could better themselves.
Upon arrival we were greeted by Craig Eggers (center white striped shirt), Senior Manager of Consumer Electronics Partner Marketing. We were immediately led into their state-of-the-art theater which also serves as the facility sound laboratory. The entire theater rests on small blocks, suspending it from the rest of the building. What this does is isolate the sound acoustically. The chairs are specially designed so that whether the theater is full or empty the acoustics never change. Air conditioning is silently ventilated through the side walls. When the doors are shut and the room is completely silent you can hear the beating of your own heart. For laboratory use, the side walls easily open to reveal speakers that can be swapped out or reconfigured for research purposes.
Suffice to say, with the addition of rear surround left and rear surround right zones in the theater there was an added sense of directionality that I was unaccustomed to hearing. Dolby is pushing 7.1 to theaters as added entertainment value for their audience. They are also pushing the technology to the filmmakers giving them the opportunity to do more with their mixing, having the ability to place sounds in areas they previously did not have available to them. I was quite pleased with the immersive sound experience.
We then had the opportunity to watch Dolby 3D trailers of Tron Legacy as well as some footage of Avatar. Dolby 3D is promising theater owners an easy upgrade to the format via a simple filter for the projector. The eyewear is not only much lighter than any I have previously worn but it is also reusable. Dolby 3D promises exceptional picture clarity from any seat at any angle of the auditorium.
Many people rarely have the opportunity to sit in a sound mixing room. This was perhaps one of the most exciting moments of my visit. We had the opportunity to sit in with John Loose, Senior Manager of Prints and A/V production at Dolby. We were all shown how a recent YouTube viral video with a simple stereo track had been completely remixed for multi-channel audio including the addition of foley effects. It was pretty cool to have the channels broken down for us so we could hear exactly where sounds were being placed. On hand was a very special guest, Jack Vad of the San Francisco Symphony (pictured just above) who explained the challenges of mixing classical music and preserving the acoustic integrity of the sound hall. Really cool stuff!
Our next visit was to their Home Theater room which they use to replicate the experience of what we have in our homes. It was here we met Jamie Goodyear. We were shown a demo of Dolby Pro Logic IIz which greatly expands upon the 5.1 and 7.1 experience with two heightened speakers on either side of the viewing area. You can see one of the speakers at the top of the picture above. What this does is add more spaciousness to the sound field as well as giving the viewer the sense of height. For example, during a rainstorm you will hear the rain coming from above you. During a plane flyby the sound will appear to come overhead rather than from the sides. The whole demonstration seemed effective but it doesn't seem to be a technology that I would be in a hurry to upgrade to.
Where the heightened speakers seem to be even more effective is in gaming. We saw a demo of a combat game where an enemy helicopter was flying overhead. With the heightened speakers you really got the feeling that the helicopter was situated above you.
Our final Home Theater demo involved the incorporation of Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and 7.1 for Netflix streaming which was announced over the past few weeks. We watched a clip directly from Netflix and I was surprised as to how indistinguishable the experience was from watching a standard DVD. Certainly the addition of Dolby Surround sound enhances the overall streaming experience. Unfortunately there is no way to find Dolby Digital content on Netflix using a standard search. That information can only be obtained when you bring up the programming information.
This brings me to perhaps the two biggest questions Home Theater enthusiasts have been asking about Dolby these days....."What happened to Dolby TrueHD" and "Is Dolby still in the Blu-ray Market?"
The reason Dolby TrueHD was dropped from Blu-ray in favor of DTS had nothing to do with one format being better than the other, which sadly became the misconception. It had everything to do with workflow. The studios were finding that during final disc sound mixing phase the encoding process was taking far longer on Dolby TrueHD than DTS. When time is money the studios decided that they needed to go with the faster process. This was truly regrettable for Dolby Labs. Since then they have greatly improved upon the encoding process and now they are going back to the studios and showing them that they have a product that they can be competitive with. It is their hope that Dolby TrueHD will find its way back to becoming a standard format on Blu-ray.
One of the messages I wanted to bring to Dolby Laboratories was that there was a need to incorporate better sound into portable devices. What if I could watch a movie on my iPad and through normal headphones be able to experience simulated surround sound? There used to be a very effective sound codec named Dolby Headphone. However, haven't heard much more about it over the years.
It seems that Dolby Laboratories were already several steps ahead of me. They are working to introduce enhanced sound into more portable devices. Will it come to Apple products? Dolby would not provide an answer to that.
What some of you may or may not find quite impressive here is the results of Dolby Digital's partnership with Nokia and the introduction of their N8 smartphone. You can now store movies on the 16GB (expandable to 48GB) drive and via the built-in HDMI connector be able to plug it into your television to experience 720p HD content with Dolby Digital Plus surround sound. For the most part, the quality of what came off of this phone looked great. Did notice some slight jerkiness in the video. The surround was easily noticeable. For me personally, I don't think I have any need to store movies on my phone to play back on any display. There are flash drives that enable you to do that. However, there does seem to be a selling point for someone and it's great to see that Dolby is making headway into the phone market.
Our day ended with a visit to perhaps what may be the future. We were introduced to the "sandbox," a place where all the rules applied to normal sound technology is thrown aside in favor of playing to your hearts content in an effort to hopefully produce something totally out of the box. In this case we found ourselves in a padded sound room encircled with 16 speakers on stands, 6 surround speakers suspended in the air via ropes, and one overhead center speaker named "The voice of God." We were given a demonstration of what 24.1 discrete channels would sound like. One of the most effective examples was a soundfile of an airplane taking off. You not only got the sense that you were sitting in the middle of the takeoff but as the plane rose so did its sound. No doubt, a completely engrossing sonic experience but the reality is that there is no real world application for this technology right now and nobody is going to invest in having this many speakers in their home. Still, it's this kind of experimentation that drives Dolby to come up with exciting new sound formats.
I would like to thank everyone at Dolby Laboratories for rolling out the red carpet for our group. I never felt as if they were looking for any kind of coverage. That feeling was solidified with a roundtable discussion at the end of the event where we met with their technology team who were most interested in learning what sort of things we felt Dolby should invest their time in. It was a real learning experience for me and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to spend a day with the team.