Dolby Atmos helps theater owners fight back against OTT UltraHD threat

With UltraHD making its appearance in the home much sooner than most expected, courtesy of Netflix and Amazon, will this mount a serious challenge to the movie theater experience? Not if Dolby has anything to say about it. Atmos, its new audio technology for theaters, helps do what no home theater can: put you in the action.

The concept behind Atmos is radical: it divorces the creation of the sound from the capabilities of the reproduction technology. Instead, the film-maker can focus entirely on the experience of the audience, and let Atmos deal with the reproduction.

As Shane Mario Ruggieri, Production Engineer at Dolby, explained to me, film-makers decide what they want to have happen with sound objects in the theater, and the Atmos sound engine figures out how best a particular movie theater sound system can reproduce it. Whether a theater has 7.1 channels or 70, Atmos optimizes the experience ensuring the audience gets the best experience they can at that theater.

Where Atmos really shines is in its ability to move sound from vague directions, to be sharply focused in a specific location. During a demonstration at Dolby’s facility in Sunnyvale, California, I found myself looking over my shoulder toward the source of a sound. In one exert from Disney’s Brave, a bear growls in the forest behind the audience attracting not only our attention but the character onscreen, who looks out over our shoulders directly at where the sound originated from.

Sometimes the effect was almost physical. During the sandstorm scene from the latest Mission Impossible movie, the sound of blown sand seemed to flow in waves across the theater. The forest scene in Brave didn’t just surround me with sound, branches cracked and birds flitted in very specific locations all around and above me.

Of course, the Dolby theater was specifically designed to give a great experience. The system has 21 speakers - including 6 located above the audience – and 20,000 watts of power to drive them. With that much power, explosions are felt as well as heard, but that is almost to be expected. Where the system really shines in the more atmospheric, quiet scenes where it helped totally immerse me in the film’s environment rather than leaving me as a voyeur.

There was one other unexpected benefit of Atmos. In many movies recently (Superman Man of Steel, for example) I have struggled to hear dialog with all the extraneous noise of crashing builds and screaming people. Normal movie theater sound systems tend to blur everything together. Since Atmos is able to give sound a specific location, I was able to separate out extraneous sounds and focus on speakers much more easily.

While the Internet certainly will be able to deliver 4K video in 2014 to the few with UltraHD TVs and sufficient broadband bandwidth to receive it, the audio experience likely will not measure up. For that, movie viewers will have to head to the theater. Mr. Ruggieri told me over a hundred theaters support the technology already, and more than 100 movies have been mixed with Atmos.