Dolby Atmos: Past, Present and Future

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Tue, 06/25/2019 - 11:23 -- Nick Dager

This month, another Disney-Pixar movie, Toy Story 4, opened in Dolby Cinemas across the globe, one of several high profile films set for release this year.As is widely known, Dolby Atmos immersive sound technology debuted in June 2012 with the release of Disney-Pixar’s hit film Brave. Two years later Dolby introduced its premium large format theatre concept Dolby Cinema, which incorporates Dolby Atmos sound with Dolby Vision high dynamic range images, luxury seating and other custom design features. This month, another Disney-Pixar movie, Toy Story 4, opened in Dolby Cinemas across the globe, one of several high profile films set for release this year. I recently spoke with Dolby’s Michael Archer, vice president, worldwide cinema sales, and Jed Harmsen, vice president, cinema and content solutions about the Dolby Atmos experience and where the technology goes from here.

Digital Cinema Report: Most motion picture professionals understand this, but for those who don’t, how is Dolby Atmos different from other approaches to cinema sound?

Jed Harmsen: The difference with Dolby Atmos is that rather than being constrained to only channels, Dolby Atmos allows up to 128 individual sounds to be precisely placed and moved in three-dimensional space throughout the cinema with lifelike depth, detail, and clarity, putting you at the center of the story. This gives artists the capability to tell their stories as they intended, so you can fully experience their visions.

DCR: Has your goal regarding Dolby Atmos changed over the years?

Jed HarmsenMichael Archer: Our goal with Dolby Atmos is to proliferate a high fidelity, immersive and differentiated listening experience to moviegoers across the globe. A key part of this strategy is cooperating with partners across the theatrical ecosystem from filmmakers to content distributors to exhibitors, and other manufacturers, to bring the Dolby Atmos experience to as many moviegoers as possible. This approach is why there are more than 1,300 Hollywood and locally produced features released or committed to the Dolby Atmos format. Our innovative Dolby Atmos experience is the most widely adopted immersive sound solution, in more than 4,800 screens worldwide across 90 countries. We are also seeing momentum in exhibitors choosing to outfit their entire multiplex with the Dolby Atmos experience. As of today, there are nearly 50 such locations where every auditorium is equipped with Dolby Atmos.

DCR: The Dolby Atmos process starts with the filmmaker. How does that work?

JH: Dolby has enabled more than 180 mixing facilities where both Hollywood and local creative talent can create full Dolby Atmos experiences that they know will be authentically represented in Dolby Atmos enabled theatres worldwide. Dolby Atmos is first and foremost a scalable technology; the innovation in our products center on the ability to accurately deliver the creative intent despite different auditorium sizes or a customer’s loudspeaker or amplifier preference. That scalability is done within the confines of the Dolby Atmos specification to ensure that systems deployed to the field faithfully reproduce the artistic intent. There are various ways to optimize rooms for cost and performance. We have developed tools for our dealers to use to properly design Dolby Atmos rooms. We also conduct trainings and create educational videos for our extensive global network of trusted dealers and installers to ensure the quality of each Dolby Atmos installation.

DCR: Some people have raised the issue that Dolby Atmos cinema halls can be difficult to inspect and troubleshoot. Does Dolby have relevant software to help customers in troubleshooting? Currently, some third-party system integrators have developed such functions. Does that require Dolby to grant corresponding authority?

JH: Dolby Atmos can render audio up to 64 speaker feeds. Each Dolby Atmos auditorium undergoes a thorough design review to ensure the selected equipment is appropriate for each auditorium. Also, the Dolby Atmos renderer includes speaker protection to reduce the risk of loudspeaker failure. We include diagnostic capabilities in Dolby Atmos products to assist with fault detection. For example, the Dolby Multichannel Amplifier has load monitoring capabilities which will notify the exhibitor in the rare case of a faulty loudspeaker. Additionally, we work with third parties who create tools for automated auditorium monitoring to check on the health of the Dolby Atmos playback system. 

DCR: From product to the audio experience, some will say that Dolby Atmos hasn’t changed much in the recent years. Does that mean the current technology has reached its ceiling in the cinema industry? Is Dolby keeping up the R&D efforts?

Michael ArcherMA: Dolby Atmos has actually changed tremendously since we brought the experience to the world just a few years ago. We have certainly maintained a healthy R&D investment in both improving the quality of Dolby Atmos experiences and making it more cost effective to implement for our exhibition customers. The way we accomplish these improvements is not only in modifying our specifications, but also in analyzing the hundreds of Dolby Atmos mixes created to date in order to understand the actual acoustic demands. We engage with our sound mixing partners to understand how they intend to use the technology in the future and make improvements to our cinema products. Because of our ecosystem engagement we are uniquely positioned to continue to innovate and improve our products. One of the other ways Dolby Atmos has evolved is by driving down costs through creating products such as the Dolby Cinema Processor CP950, Dolby Integrated Media Server IMS3000 and Dolby Multichannel Amplifier that ultimately replace several pieces of legacy equipment. They also save money in terms of installation, powering, and maintenance. For example, we’ve calculated the total cost of ownership of the amplifier series, and we found out that they can make a huge impact on an exhibitor’s operating costs. Also, our SLS 3-axis ceiling and surround speakers were designed to save time and money during installation.

Finally, we recently created auditorium packages, which offers a discount for those outfitting their rooms with 100 percent Dolby equipment (for everything but projectors, which we don’t provide). The packages vary by room size and audio technology (7.1 or Dolby Atmos) and can be ordered with just one part number. These packages are in response to exhibitors’ requests for more affordable solutions without sacrificing quality.

DCR: Will there be a next-generation audio technology after Dolby Atmos? What’s Dolby’s vision for the future?

MA: Despite the rapid expansion, 4,800 screens are a small percentage of all of the cinema screens globally. There is still so much opportunity available to expand the reach of Dolby Atmos. We are focusing on this expansion in order to elevate more moviegoers’ experiences to spectacular with immersive audio. We are also aware that the experience you hear and see today isn't the one you'll see in the future. We're constantly tinkering and testing, relying on Dolby’s 50 years of expertise, to bring you the very best in audio experiences today and tomorrow in order to make this a reality.

Today, we are monitoring trends in the marketplace about how theatre owners program auditoriums and play back alternative content. We are looking at how our Dolby Atmos products can support gaming, e-sports, broadcast and other non-traditional applications.

The Disney-Pixar film Brave was the first movie released in Dolby Atmos.DCR: Talk about the current state of immersive audio standardization and its effect on Dolby and Dolby Atmos.

JH: Sure. In August of 2018 SMPTE published two standards documenting immersive audio metadata and the immersive audio bitstream, both derived from the Dolby Atmos bitstream. These two standards are a great step towards the industry facilitating simplified distribution while ensuring that cinemas can play back improved audio experiences on their choice of compliant immersive sound systems. However, there is still a significant amount of work for the industry to do before reaching a point where the SMPTE bitstream can be confidently distributed by content owners across the globe to ensure equipment interoperability. Furthermore, an open standard format does not mean that content will sound the same with all systems. Playback is dependent on several elements including the number and locations of speakers, the capability of those speakers, and whether channels or objects are being used. Even with after interoperability testing, our belief is that each distributor will likely fulfill content and associated KDMs based on their and their creatives’ perspective on how well new solutions faithfully represent the creative intent.

For Dolby, our quality control processes help ensure the Dolby Atmos experience is consistent from auditorium to auditorium, which gives our studio partners high confidence that the decisions they make when mixing will show up as they intended when played in a Dolby Atmos auditorium. This confidence illustrates why Dolby Atmos continues to be, even after the SMPTE publication, the only immersive audio system that is consistently supported with content on a global basis from all major studios.

Also, Dolby Atmos has been widely adopted in the professional and consumer markets, with encoding and mastering tools available for Blu-Ray, broadcast and streaming. Ultimately this means that entertainment enthusiasts will recognize the Dolby Atmos brand from their home theater and personal electronics. As a result of this increased familiarity, we believe more consumers seek out the Dolby Atmos brand for their cinema experience.

DCR: Dolby recently unveiled a new product that has been well received.

The Dolby Cinema Processor CP950MA: That’s right. We just announced the Dolby Cinema Processor CP950 at CinemaCon 2019, which received a Catalyst Award from Digital Cinema Report; thank you. This new processor offers the most innovative way of installing Dolby 5.1 and 7.1 Surround, and includes an expansion slot for future upgradability to Dolby Atmos. The feature-packed solution offers ease of installation and servicing, a built-in booth monitor, intuitive front-panel user interface, color touchscreen, crossover for bi-amplified or tri-amplified screen loudspeakers, and web interface for enhanced access and usability. It is a great option for both exhibitors who want to upgrade to Dolby Atmos now as well as those who are not quite ready but want the option to upgrade in the future without having to purchase new equipment.

DCR: The Dolby Integrated Media Server IMS3000 has been in the market for a little while now. What has the feedback has been so far?

MA: The IMS3000 is an innovative imaging server and audio processor in one. This is unique in the industry. It delivers reliability and enables exhibitors to show movies with superior sound and also increases exhibitors’ purchasing power compared to many other solutions. The solution also offers flexibility with sound as exhibitors can start with Dolby Audio 5.1 or 7.1 sound now and unlock the power of Dolby Atmos later with flexible storage options, and a new robust feature set. The product has been extremely well received and the feedback has been incredibly strong, particularly over the past 12 months or so as customers recognize the value proposition of our combined imaging and audio solution. Further to the point, the IMS3000 has proven to be very reliable, as with all Dolby products, and backed by our global support organization that we believe to be best in class.

DCR: You have also announced some changes regarding Dolby amplifiers. From the original 24-channel and 32-channel configurations, you have added the 16-channel configuration. Will you add more configurations to satisfy the needs of larger and smaller cinema halls?

Disney's Tomorrowland was the first film released in Dolby Cinema.JH: We have recently released a 16-channel version of our Dolby Multichannel Amplifier and new amplifier modules that deliver higher power for low impedance loudspeakers. The DMA16302 supports up to 1100W of output power per channel in the appropriate configuration (as does our 24-channel and 32-channel variants of the Dolby Multichannel Amplifier). Not only cost-effective, both the DMA16302 and our DMA24302 now include an 8-channel analog input card to more easily integrate with legacy, non-digital, audio processors such as Dolby’s CP750. These three versions of the Dolby Multichannel Amplifier provide exhibitors with a range of configurations that are well suited for Dolby Atmos, the power demands for loudspeakers and subwoofers, and in the case of the DMA16302 can service a 5.1 or 7.1 auditorium with a single unit.

DCR: For a Dolby Atmos system, Dolby’s amplifier is not the only option to customers. What are the advantages of the Dolby amplifier?

JH: The Dolby Multichannel Amplifier is an advanced, high-density design that can replace up to 16 stereo amplifiers. With less equipment to install, power, and maintain, it provides a simpler and more efficient installation, plus an overall savings on space and energy usage. The Dolby Multichannel Amplifier is also designed for reliability. It includes a custom-built power supply with built-in redundancy, power sharing, operational monitoring, and fault detection.

DCR: Dolby acquired SLS in 2015. You haven’t launched as many product models as other speaker brands. Will you consider launching more product models and more affordable speakers?

JH: Dolby has released three new loudspeakers as part of our 3-axis loudspeaker lineup, the MA390C, MA460AS and MA480AS, to enable more cost-effective immersive audio installations for auditoriums of all sizes. In March we released the SLS CS1090 for small to medium sized Dolby 5.1/7.1 surround and Dolby Atmos auditoriums. We intend to refresh our loudspeaker lineup in a regular cadence while always being mindful of the balance between affordability and the fidelity of audio for which Dolby is known.

DCR: Any final thoughts?

MA: It is definitely an exciting time for us. At Dolby we are continuously looking for new ways to bring the best possible cinema experience to moviegoers. The power of Dolby lies in the ability to transport people through experiences of heightened sensibility. As we mentioned before, we really want moviegoers to experience the story as the creator envisioned.