So Dolby invited me to attend the launch of their new Dolby Atmos technology in Chennai. It was released elsewhere in the world with the launch of Pixar’s ‘Brave’ but is only just coming to India, along with Life of Pi.
Dolby Atmos is a wonderful new tech. It moves beyond the realm of channel based sound to object based sound, which is what we see in today’s video games. In a game, when you move around, the audio moves with you. This is because the sound in games is not tied to a particular channel and rather exists in its own virtual space. Because of this, the game is able to dynamically pan it around as you move, relative to your movement.
That’s not how things work in movies today, where you have fixed channels and they only reproduce the sound from their respective channels. Atmos allows content producers to create sound objects, like a gun shot or water drop, and then decide where it should be placed in the 3D space. During playback, the Atmos system then analyses this 3D graph and sends the sound to the appropriate speaker dynamically, instead of just sending a preset channel to a preset speaker as older systems do. This is obviously great for content creators because now they have more freedom to place sounds around the room.
Looking at it from an end-user perspective, Atmos gives you a more immersive sound. You have 62.2 channels around you, dynamically reproducing the sound. But the best part of this are the speakers above you, which adds that much needed sense of height and three dimensionality to the sound.
Dolby demonstrated this by playing a sound clip of a thunderstorm. Because there are now speakers above, the sound of the thunder actually comes from the top, instead of just lamely appearing to be coming from the top through the speakers on the side. The amount of realism this adds is jaw-dropping. I had general idea what this might sound like but the actual stuff was even better.
Dolby also showed us scenes from ‘Chasing Mavericks’, ‘Sivaji: The Boss’ (which is being released in 3D and is just as mind-rapingly bad; Rajnikant makes Salman Khan look talented) and an entire screening of ‘Life of Pi’. Sivaji was not that impressive, mostly because the sound was converted later and hardly made use of the overhead channels. Chasing Mavericks and Life of Pi, on the other hand, were pretty good, especially in the ship sinking scene in LoP. Hearing the water gushing from nearly every side was oddly terrifying.
Admittedly, none of them were as impressive as Dolby’s demo clips, but then eventually it depends upon the movie makers how they make use of the tech. The reason I bothered writing all of this is because I’m truly excited about it. It was rather frustrating that there hasn’t really been a major improvement in surround sound since the 5.1 speaker system, but Atmos changes that.
I really want this to be implemented in the IMAX in Mumbai. With that screen and this sound, I can only imagine how fucking awesome the movie watching experience is going to be. The Hobbit, for example, which uses Atmos is going to sound incredible. But as of now, if you want to watch this movie with Atmos, you’ll have to go to Chennai, which houses the only theater in India that has been fitted with an Atmos system (Sathyam cinemas). Implementing Atmos in theaters is an investment of time (few weeks) and money ($30,000 − $40,000, at least) for theater owners and so naturally they aren’t rushing to implement it right now. The number of movies supporting Atmos is also not a lot right now, which doesn’t help either.
I’m hoping Atmos takes off in India. If the gimmicky 3D can, so should this.