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Inside Dolby Laboratories, and the Future of Sound and Vision

Dolby Laboratories recently invited 40+ international journalists, some from as far away as China and India, to its San Francisco headquarters for an inside peek at Dolby's biophysical lab, where staff studies the science of sound and vision and its effect on the human form.

Dolby's lobby set the scene—full of trippy imagery curated within the Dolby Art Series. As we waited for the day to start, journalists knocked back caffeine and recovered from jet lag next to a video installation, Substance: a Study of Matter, created by Javier Cruz and Kamil Nawratil to show off the power of Dolby Atmos.

Dolby wants you to know that it's much more than a cool sound promo in the movie theater.

"At Dolby we have something unique to offer," Kevin Yeaman, President and CEO, told us. "By focusing on the science of sight and sound, we can create and enable these immersive experiences. With a channel-based system, you might have five channels, maybe with 50 speakers, but [in other theaters] they are grouped. With Dolby Atmos, [creators can utilize], the world's first object-based audio, with up to 128 sound objects at a time, in a three-dimensional soundscape where the sound moves around you with pinpoint accuracy."

In a demo, 3D sounds shot across the darkened cinema in a choreographed flow that reminded me why, sophisticated home entertainment systems aside, there's nothing like a state-of-the-art theater.

Dolby Labs

Which is probably why AMC partnered with Dolby Cinema at 80 venues in the US, to date. Dolby is also keen to expand its international footprint (hence the presence of journalists from around the globe that day), and has partnerships in countries like China, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Spain.

Dolby Laboratories, founded in London in 1965 by engineer and physicist Dr. Ray Dolby, moved its HQ to San Francisco in 1967 and has been associated with Hollywood ever since Star Wars came out in ear-thrilling Dolby Stereo. In 1992, Batman Returns was released in Dolby Digital and in 1999, Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace debuted in Dolby Surround EX. Next out of the gate is Blade Runner 2049, mastered in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos.

Dolby Labs

"We sit side by side with directors, colorists, and sound engineers," said Yeaman. "We seek to understand whether our innovation is, in fact, a palette they can work with and what tools do they need to be successful."

Another demo showed off Dolby Vision's laser projection system, which utilizes high dynamic range (HDR) and wide color gamut (WCG) to show colors that pop, brilliantly; true deep blacks and luminous whites.

"You need dark blacks and colors that come alive," David Leitch, director of Atomic Blonde, said in a video featuring testimonials from Hollywood directors. Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos "add another level to the complexity of storytelling. It's immersive. You want to exhibit your work in the highest quality—it allows the audience to see it in its purest form—and I'm going to take advantage of that."

It was time to head upstairs, to the labs, where Dolby is looking at the effects of sound, vision, and VFX. There, Poppy Crum, Chief Scientist, had a willing participant hooked up to a bunch of biosensors, including a 64-channel EEG, watching two fire dancers battle a vivid conflagration on a high-end monitor.

You guessed it: the fire was shot in Dolby Vision, so the biosensors went crazy. We got to see the participant's physical responses tracked and analyzed in real time on multiple screens. It was evident she perceived the intense heat, due to the high-fidelity visuals, as real.

Dolby Labs

"As a neurophysiologist, my focus has been on the bi-directional interplay between tech innovation and the sensory experience," Crum explained. "We really are at a point where tech is enabling us to engage our sensory systems in such authentic ways, whether it's in the cinema or virtual/augmented reality.

"Our computational neuroscientists, here in the biophysical lab are looking at how human experience can be modeled in different ways, for immersive technologies. We want to take content creators' intent and amplify it, using our tools to create better insights and results."

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Sadly, Dolby isn't using its biophysical research as a managed software service for public dissemination; it's more of an internal collaboration with those in the sound and vision business, like Hollywood, but it was interesting stuff. It would be wild to get hooked up to their system while watching movies to see exactly how easy it is to manipulate our neuroendocrine systems.

Next up? We didn't see a demo of this, but Dolby is looking to lead in VR/AR/MR too, with the latest release of authoring tools for Dolby Atmos, allowing high-end mapped projection and 3D video via the various head-mounted displays.

At the end of the day, as we all drifted out past the video installation, the smart soundscape and vivid visuals appeared prescient of a futuristic off-world colony transit hub. So perhaps Dolby Laboratories is indeed on its way to next-gen sound and vision. In fact, just before we exited the main lobby, executives told us to be back at 10:30 a.m. as—surprise—they'd be taking us to Skywalker Sound, a key Dolby Laboratories partner. But that's another story.

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