As ticket and concession stand prices continue to reach absurd levels in movie theaters across America, at least one presence has remained a constant for every movie-goer: Dolby. The audio giant has been innovating cinemaspace for over 40 years, completely dominating the industry. Yet, somehow they’re still not satisfied.
We’re all familiar with home theater systems and the litany of setups available to us. Go to any local electronics store and you’ll find that over-zealous salesperson desperately trying to sell you the latest 7.1 channel system. We’ve seen this evolution go from single channel mono, to then stereo, surround mono, followed by 5.1 channel which adds a subwoofer, and lastly to where we are today. Conventional wisdom says we should expect a 9.1 channel unit next, but Dolby isn’t looking to be conventional.
So where do they go next? Enter- Atmos.
Imagine yourself sitting alone in an open field with both eyes closed. Most noticeably you would be able to specifically hear the movement of sound and discern that it isn’t limited to one direction. However, that limited directionality is exactly how we perceive sound anytime we’re in a movie theater, and Dolby views that as a problem.
The way movie theaters are currently set up, sound can only pass through channels in an ordered sequence. So, if a helicopter flies in from the left side of the screen we hear it go from zone left to zone right, but if it flies over and off screen, we only hear it go from one zone in front to the only zone in the back, never overhead. It almost seems funny to think about in retrospect, but any time you’ve seen a film with rain or thunder, that sound is being pelted at you from front facing speakers instead of being dropped down like it should be naturally. Atmos solves this problem.
With Atmos, Dolby eliminates the limitation issue of sound panning through channels. Instead, speakers can be mounted overhead, below, beside us, even directly in front of us, and every single piece of audio can be delivered freely without restrictions to zones.
This would be a huge step forward in the audio world. Essentially, it takes the standard 7.1 surround sound, and instantly opens it up to numbers like 62.2 (the average number of speakers in higher end theaters), and it’s certainly not absurd to think that in the future that figure can rise into the hundreds.
It’s this technological advancement that has sound mixers giddy. Atmos’ software not only allows for precise audio implementation, it also allows for the removal of any undesired sound objects. However, the best news for mixers and consumers alike, is that mixes will no longer have to be dumbed down to the system using it; files get sent to theaters in one version and automatically adapts itself to the capabilities of the system. That same rule would apply for home theaters.
Dolby is obviously very excited about Atmos’ potential to revolutionize the way we watch movies, but their excitement is second to theater owners who have seen ticket sales dip by 10 million – not profit, actual tickets sold. Boosting the movie theater experience will obviously correlate to increased ticket sale, but most importantly, the next time you go to the movies, the sound of thunder will be coming from where it’s meant to, above.