“Mobile audio has to improve”. That’s the message Dolby’s chief marketing officer Bob Borchers stressed in a recent blog post. “It’s no good having a razor-sharp image of Godzilla if his roar sounds like a mouse with a sore throat.”
He certainly has a point. With more people than ever consuming cinema blockbusters on tablets and phones, money has been piled into improving screen technology without giving the same level of consideration for audio.
In fact, Borchers quoted figures that suggest displays drive 45 per cent of the cost of a phone, with just 4 per cent awarded to the audio side of things – something Dolby is unsurprisingly keen to change.
It used MWC 2015 to show its commitment to bringing the Atmos experience to mobile devices. Read on for all you need to know.
What is it?
Dolby Atmos started in 2012 as a multi-directional sonic experience that was only available with up to 64 specially calibrated speakers placed in the walls and ceiling of a cinema environment.
More recently we’ve seen it filtering down to a home cinema setup with the right kit, but just as Dolby’s 5.1 surround sound processing made its way to portable devices and headphones, so Atmos is making the same move.
How does it work?
Atmos on mobile devices works through a rather clever combination of binaural headphone rendering and object-based audio.
The former creates surround sound through headphones using something called head-related transfer functions, or HRTFs.
HRTFs have been around since surround sound processing first arrived in headphones, the basic idea behind them being that when you hear a sound, your head gets in the way of the soundwaves and changes them.
Your brain picks up on these changes, as well as the time difference between when a sound reaches one ear and the next, using all this information to determine where the sound is coming from.
By reverse engineering this process, sound experts have been able to develop virtual surround sound that can produce, from the single speakers on either side of your headphones, sound that seems to come from all around you.
To take this a step further and create a Dolby Atmos experience on the go, technicians combine this knowledge of HRTFs with object-based audio, the foundation of Atmos, to create a more all-encompassing sound.
This means that every object in the scene is packed with data that explains exactly where its sound should originate and where it should move to in a scene, placing it there with greater precision – even overhead.
How do I get it?
To get Dolby Atmos on the go, you’ll need to have a tablet or phone that can support Dolby Atmos processing and any pair of headphones.
The number of devices with the tech on board is limited at the moment, but it is growing.
These include the world’s first Atmos-enabled smartphone, the A7000, and two new tablets, the 8in TAB 2 A8 and the 10in TAB 2 A10-70, which will be available between April and June 2015.
Dolby Atmos and virtual reality
Another string to Atmos’ bow lies in the burgeoning market of virtual reality, thanks to a new partnership with VR company, Jaunt.
Further stressing the importance of sound to immersive storytelling, Dolby wants to provide an all-encompassing audio experience to match the all-encompassing visual experience you get with virtual reality.
This means sounds that change as you move around the virtual environment, and help to give cues of where you should be looking and when.
In this case, the sound processing of Atmos is all done within the forthcoming Jaunt application rather than hardware, though the app will only be compatible with a select number of devices that have the processing power to handle it.
We got hands on with the technology at MWC 2015 and despite being initially sceptical, we found ourselves pleasantly surprised. Overhead noises were convincingly recreated and there was a decent sense of width and space that has been pushed even further since the introduction of traditional surround sound processing in headphones.
It was particularly effective when trying out the virtual reality headset, giving you the audio cues you need to move yourself around a virtual environment.
It’s fair to say that the on-screen visuals certainly work alongside the audio to help ‘place’ sounds in certain areas – close your eyes and you can much easier pick up on the trickery Dolby is using to create the multi-directional effect – but then that’s not really part of the fun.
If you’re expecting the same experience as you get in the cinema, you’ll be disappointed. Effects are less pronounced and the experience is overall less immersive, but it’s worth remembering this is working with just two speakers and some clever processing. Dolby tells us it’s not trying to match the experience in the cinema, it’s trying to complement it, and better the mobile audio experience we already have in the process.
The only catch is content – aside from the handful of demo clips that we saw, there is currently no native Atmos content available for mobile. This means it will be working with mostly non-Atmos-mixed audio and upscaling it to create a similar effect. The proof will be in the testing as to whether this is as impressive.
We’re looking forward to testing Atmos on mobile at greater length in the near future and will bring you our full thoughts on it very soon.