10 Reasons Why Dolby’s Atmos Will Bypass Your Living Room for Your Headphones

By | February 27, 2014 4:33 am PDT

Right from its launch, Dolby has made no secret of the fact that it sees a business for its Atmos immersive audio (IA) technology beyond the cinema. Part of the grand plan was just revealed at the Mobile World Congress currently underway in Barcelona – and it is a very different path from that of rival Auro. Put it this way, DON’T hold your breath for Pioneer to come out with a Dolby Atmos home cinema amplifier but DO expect Samsung’s Galaxy 6/7 to feature AtmosM.

Everyone knows by now that Dolby and Barco are locked into a struggle about who will dominate the next generation of digital audio in cinemas, with the object-based Atmos fighting against the 11.1 Auro. So far the fight has largely gone Dolby’s way, with Atmos screens outnumbering Auro by a factor of 4 to 1, though with some countries such as India being more inclined to embrace Auro.

With Dolby in full control of the Atmos technology and patents, they can afford to bide their time a bit more and build up a larger footprint (earprint?) in cinemas. Particularly following the deal to acquire Doremi, which will help them expand and disadvantage Barco/Auro. Barco, meanwhile, only controls the Auro technology as it relates to cinemas and the patent owners are starting to look at consumer markets such as home cinema and automobiles.

When we asked the question a month ago ‘Has Auro Abandoned Cinema for the Home?‘ we quickly got a response from Auro Technologies saying “we’re happy to confirm that Auro has no plans to step away from the cinema market: quite the contrary in fact. We’re confident that expanding into the consumer market will only strengthen our growing presence in cinema.” The idea is that with more films mixed in Auro 11.1 and seen and heard that way in the home, people will want to experience it the same way in cinemas.

The logic makes some sense, if you consider that consumers who chose Dolby 5.1 in the home did have a positive influence on demanding the same or better in the cinema. However, it also points to the two-front battle that both Dolby and Barco/Auro are waging in the Immersive Audio War. One is to get take up in cinemas and beyond, the second is to get content owners to make their films, television shows and games mixed and encoded in their flavour of IA. Here both are sparing no effort in snaring the best content and creatives, with both Barco and Auro engaged in not just Hollywood but getting films, mixing facilities, preview theatres, directors and audio engineers in countries such as France, India and China familiarised and equipped with their technology. Content is very much King in this battle.

But when it comes to the consumer, the battle lines are drawn quite different, as we will see.

As reported by CNet from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Dolby is gearing up Atmos for a market beyond not just cinema, but beyond home cinema too:

Want cinema-like audio when you play video games or watch a movie on your smartphone or tablet? You may be able to get it soon.

Here at Mobile World Congress, audio company Dolby gave me a demo of its Atmos technology running on a tablet. I listened to four different video clips via an ordinary passive headset (Sennheiser, if you must know), and came away impressed. I was particularly amazed at how audio came from below my chin and above my brow, enveloping me in a cocoon of sound.

Atmos is basically a surround-sound system with the ability to support up to 128 audio tracks. It’s capable of making rain sound like its falling from the ceiling.

Using algorithms running on either a dedicated audio processor chip or an ARM processor core, Dolby is able to simulate the same effect by tricking your brain into thinking the sound is 3D.

As exciting as this sounds, Dolby isn’t releasing this just yet — the company says it is up to its partners to implement the technology in their devices. Furthermore, Dolby hasn’t even come up with a name for the technology yet, though I did suggest Atmos Mobile.

Unlike Auro, Dolby will thus not offer 28.1 speaker-solutions for your home cinema or super-pimped out BMWs (yet), but instead focus on smartphones and tablets. They will eventually also target the home and car, but bypassing them in the early phase would be a clever move for several reasons:

1) Placating Cinemas. Dolby knows that it still has a mountain to climb in terms of installations in cinemas – without even mentioning the battle over the proprietary nature of Atmos. To go out and trumpet that people can now get “the same Atmos experience in their home” would not just be dumb, but downright suicidal. Remember, Barco has no control over what its Auros Tech colleagues do and may even end up changing the branding to distance itself from the home/car/phone efforts;

2) Branding Works. But branding works better on smartphones than on home amplifiers. Exhibit A for the prosecution: Beats partnership with HTC. My Dolby colleague liked to joke that activating the Beats function on his HTC One phone has a noticeable impact on the audio – “it raises the volume by at least two notches.” While there may be more to it, the Beats logo has done more for the highly praised but little bought HTC One than any number of positive reviews. Compare that to the last time you bent down to check whether your brother-in-laws new home cinema amp featured the latest Dolby and/or DTS functions;

3) Licensing. Ever heard the question would you rather fight one horse sized duck, or 100 duck sized horses? Well, would you rather collect the licence from one Auro-equipped amplifier or 100 Atmos-equipped smartphones? Think about how many people you know have a high-end home cinema system and how many have a high-end smartphone. Unless you happen to be an audio engineer or cinema technologist reading this [yes, I know, you are our core readership] the chances are that this will be a factor of more than 100 to one;

4) Controlling the experience. Another question: in which of these three environments can you have the greatest control of the audio landscape: a) a home cinema/lounge, b) a car (open top optional), or c) a pair of over-the-ear headphones. Really, is that your final answer? Would you like to call a friend? Here, put on these headphones connected to my new Samsung Galaxy 6 and it will tell you in which direction your friend is located from you this minute by placing his voice virtually coming from that direction;

5) Software, Software, Software. The power of processors is now such that complex tasks can be done without dedicated or purpose-specific chips. This means that will be increasingly easy to render complex 3D audio for headsets on smartphones at an ever-cheaper cost. This is how Dolby would prefer to have Atmos running on smartphones, as long as it can’t be pirated easily and appear on low-end Chinese smartphones licence-free;

6) Simulating 3D. Once you have nailed simulating 3D in headphones it becomes easier to expand that know-how into the home and the car. Dolby are smart enough to realise that most people won’t be dotting their lounge with 28, 20, 14 or even 10 speakers around and above. So expect Dolby working on the 3D equivalent to the sound bar that most flat screen TV’s have instead of a full 5.1 surround set up. It won’t be ‘true’ 3D, but it will trick your mind into thinking that it is, while still having a high WAF (wife approval factor – a term I learned from a Barco contact);

7) Future is Mobile. Consumers are moving in the direction of mobile and the there is little aspiration amongst the millennials in owning the car. Zuckerberg didn’t repeat Gates/Microsoft’s mistake of clinging to the desktop and Dolby won’t cling to the television when the future lies in mobile. particularly for games, which are moving away from dedicated hand-held consoles (Nintendo DS et al) and in the direction of smartphones;

8) Replacement Cycles. The replacement cycle for smartphones is shrinking to nearly two years for most developed markets. The same is not true for televisions, BluRay players, amplifiers, automobiles and pretty much any other consumer technology. Dolby can thus build a large market share and penetration rate faster than on any other platform;

9) Streaming. By going for mobiles Dolby can avoid having to get SMPTE standardization for a broadcast or optical media (DVD/BluRay) format that supports its own, but possibly also rival and even ‘open’ immersive audio standards. You want Atmos? There’s an app for that, as the slogan goes. Getting onto Android’s Playstore or Apple’s App store is a lot easier, while still keeping door open for streaming deals with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others that would see Atmos mastered film and television content that can be viewed on your iPad. House of Cards Season 3 in Atmos?

10) Dolby Vision. By sticking to mobile platform it allows for time for the Dolby Vision, high dynamic range (HDR) technology to mature enough to appear in television sets that could also feature a Atmos 3D Sound Bar, though this will be a niche market for many years. More likely there will be an OcculusRift virtual reality (VR) headset with Atmos-enabled audio;

Walk into Dolby’s swanky headquarter in London’s Soho today and the first sight that will greet you is…a table full of tablets and smartphones. Behind it lies the Atmos-equipped preview theatre. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing with the headphone-featuring tablet while you wait to go into the Dolby theatre or meet your Dolby contact. That same type of table with rows of tablets attached to headphones is likely to be appearing in your local electronics store sooner than you realise. Of course, Dolby won’t let Auro have the next generation home cinema market to itself forever, but for now the mantra needs to be: ‘Cinema, Content and Mobile’.

Patrick von Sychowski
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Patrick von Sychowski

Patrick was a Senior Analyst at Screen Digest, went on to launch the digital cinema operations of Unique and Deluxe Europe, then digitised Bollywood at Adlabs/RMW, and now writes, consults and appears on panels about cinema all over the world.
Patrick von Sychowski
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