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MTBS' Visit to Dolby Headquarters, Part II

By Neil Schneider

Last week, MTBS was flown to the Dolby Laboratories' San Francisco headquarters to sample their work in stereoscopic 3D and surround sound audio.  In part one of our coverage, I talked about their 3D and surround sound cinema solutions.  Today, we continue our tour of Dolby Labs!

Neil Schneider, MTBS (Left), Bill Admans, Dolby Laboratories (Right)

Bill Admans, Director of Production and Post-Production Solutions for Dolby demonstrated a new color calibration display for cinema production called the PRM-4200.  The specifications of these things are all gobbltigook to me, but there were some facts that struck me.

First, when it comes to HDTVs, the black level is considered one of the most important measurements of color accuracy.  For movie color calibrators, they tend to stick to CRT technologies because LCD panels have been unable to match their visual flexibility.

Dolby PRM-4200

While this is more a consumer grade comparison, Panasonic's plasma 3D HDTVs are regularly applauded for their black level accuracy, but this has been reported to gradually diminish with time (still excellent, but it doesn't hold to original spec forever).  Dolby's proprietary solution is a 1080P display based on an LCD panel and LED backlight.  This is important because its color quality should hold true for several years at a time. 

Using sample footage from Apocalypse Now, Bill demonstrated the range of color that can easily be displayed by this unit - something that is hard to achieve in the consumer markets.  He also showed a scene from Shutter Island that was recalibrated using their solution versus what the actual filmmakers used, and it demonstrated some clear visual advantages.  Things that stood out were high dynamic range lighting, fuller colors, and minor details like sky coloring that didn't show up as easily before.

Jamie Goodyear, Dolby Laboratories Spokesperson

On the consumer side, while everyone has been talking about the potential of 3D Blu-Ray for years, it's likely going to be digital download that is going to represent the future of movie content - 3D or otherwise.  The problem is that while we take it for granted, bandwidth can be expensive depending on where you live.  For example, here in Canada, some cable providers charge a lot more when you go over your high-speed Internet bandwidth cap - and these limits are expected to shrink, not grow!

There is a similar problem with digital cable.  The same way cable providers don't want to add extra bandwidth for a full left/right view with stereoscopic 3D broadcasting, they don't want to create extra throughput for extra audio channels.

Dolby's solution is their Dolby Digital Plus technology.  Based on a lossless compression algorithm, they currently support 7.1 surround sound that gives a simillar result to what you would get through hardcopy Blu-Ray.  According to Jamie Goodyear, Spokesperson for Dolby Laboratories, 7.1 Surround can easily get pumped through existing five to ten megabit services and cable providers.  In fact, Dolby expects to be able to support 11 or more channels with existing infrastructure.

Speaking of channels, their latest consumer offering is Dolby Pro Logic IIz.  The Pro Logic series is a technology that takes an audio feed, and separates it into distinct speaker channels.  Over the years, it has been enhanced from supporting stereo front and single back, to full 5.1, to 7.1 and more.  The IIz version adds front high or front ceiling speakers so you get a sense of things happening overhead like rain or helicopters.  It's quite a feat because current authoring is limited to 7.1, so the Pro Logic IIz technology has to differentiate the non-directional audio components and place them at the right spot.  In other words, IIz adds extra channels that wouldn't have existed otherwise.

For gamers on the go, notebook computers have a disadvantage that their speakers are small and are therefore limited in volume and fullness.  To answer this, Jamie demonstrated the Dolby Home Theater v4 bundle, a toolchest of software applications that overcome these limitations, and bring new enhancements to the table.

One component is Dolby's "Virtual Speaker" solution.  The idea is that even though there can be countless channels in a room, we only have two ears.  Their Virtual Speaker technology adjusts the way the audio is broadcast so it can fool your ears to think that they are experiencing actual surround sound.

While we couldn't try the virtual 3D technology, other enhancements made the audio on an Aspire Z series notebook seem louder and more cinematic.  According to Dolby, this isn't a compression algorithm, and is instead a form of normalization.  Unfortunately, it's not a one size fits all technology.  Dolby has to work closely with individual manufacturers to ensure that the software is properly tuned for their speakers and headphones because they all have unique characteristics.

Another technology that Dolby has under its hat is Dolby Axon.  Normally when gamers play in multiplayer, you just hear their voice as the game is played, you talk back, and hopefully you win.  Dolby Axon is a multiplayer chat system that treats the player voices as though they are part of the game, and actually associates their surround sound placement with where characters are located.  So, if you have a colleague yelling at you to get out of the way from behind you, you will hear him from behind.  Axon also takes into account things like reverberation and having the game's environment impacting how the voices sound.

If you don't have surround sound speakers handy, Dolby licenses their technology out to several headset manufacturers so you can have a full audio experience without buying all the speakers.  Logitech is connected with this, for example.

Unfortunately, Dolby Axon isn't something you can just download and use.  Game developers need to support it directly.  Current titles include Need For Speed World, Mission Against Terror, ZT Online, Dragon Nest, and Quake Wars Online.  We'll have to see how this technology pans out, because it has promise. 

Kevin Yeaman (left), President & CEO of Dolby Laboratories and Neil Schneider (MTBS)

This concludes our tour of Dolby Headquarters in San Francisco!  Share your comments below.