Going Surround With Dolby DTS:X, Into VR and Beyond …

24 Feb

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

ef511dd311d205a6bce54596fcd8b2c6_XLDolby Audio Technologies has two surround sound formats which can improve the movie-going experience if the studios and theatre chains embrace it. Most auditoriums are configured with either DTS or ATMOS sound; to fully appreciate the soundscape, people have to be sitting at the sweet spot. This technology was introduced in 2012 and it provides a nice sweeping experience assuming the movie is encoded in this format and the stadium’s speaker setup is configured to the right sound levels. New to the scene is DTS X (for any sound system) and Headphone X (for mobiles and tablets). In both formats, this psychoacoustic sound reproduction algorithm simulates surround sound from 11 different sources, including height, from a simple group of speakers or a pair of headphones. The former was introduced in 2015 with technology finally appearing this year (a full sound system upgrade is still required to get the most out of the specification), and the latter was first demonstrated in 2013 at E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo. Nearly three years later, this technology is not widely known by the mainstream public and it is still not recognized as an alternative means to enjoy surround sound as of 2016. Demos of this product only began appearing late 2015.

When considering this year is flagged as the time virtual reality can potentially take off, to provide a truly immersive experience requires the right sound system to match. Nearly everyone is excited for the Oculus Rift. This company partnered with RealSpace3D instead of Dolby and both use headphones to create a 3D auditory world. They both sound spectacular, recreating proximity to sound sources with ease in the demo videos offered, but mastering height is tricky. Not everyone hears the same way. People with hearing loss may not perceive noises from a heightened distance as easily. Both companies want to make inroads to the (home) theatre market but until movies get mixed into one of these auditory formats so it can be experienced, all anyone is going to get is a basic surround mix over an all-encompassing format.

Immersive sound and VR is not ready for the masses. It will be an expensive fad just like 3DTV. Back when they were coming into the consumer market, promises by the television industry to offer content did not pan out and it’s been limited even now to a few premium channels. Video releases with this expanded format are not selling like hot cakes and where this technology is going is simply nowhere. It remains as an option for a movie going crowd and even then, some folks are getting tired of the format. They are saying it’s not worth the expense because the space is not fully exploited to put the viewer into the film. Most directors using the format create a window to a world instead of putting the viewer in the world. The same can be said for where a music concert goer wants to be seated. Either they want to be on the stage to hear the drums bang out from the side or be seated from afar to hear everything from the Marshall speakers to fill the stadium. The audio-visual experience has to be right to be fully enjoyable.

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Where the sound comes from is just as important. Video gamers have been enjoying 7.1 sound through customized headsets when hooked up to sound cards capable of decoding the DTS or ATMOS format. When or if Headphone X or RealSpace3D takes off depends on developers paying the licensing fees and encoding the soundscapes into games, movies and television programs en masse. The distribution service, be it online streaming or at the theatre, will have to make the investment to update the hardware in a stage environment where required to enjoy the product. Should a new revolution happen, movie metroplexes will have to start offering seating with headphone jacks so people can literally plug-in to hear movies as they are intended no matter where they sit.

With Dolby, they do have Inception, Interstellar, and Man of Steel sound demos available to people to listen for themselves to find out if they like this format. Now the big question is if the video releases for Crimson Peak, Ex Machina and The Last Witch Hunter (as recently announced on Twitter) will have digital downloads encoded in this format for viewing on the go too?

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