EXCLUSIVE | From Star Wars to iPhone 12, how Dolby pushed the limits of sight and soundFebruary 6, 2021
“Ray Dolby’s pioneering work in sound played a pivotal role in allowing Star Wars to be the truly immersive experience I had always dreamed it would be.”
— GEORGE LUCAS
Ray Dolby (1933–2013), an American engineer and inventor, founded Dolby Laboratories in London, in 1965, with a staff of four. The goal was to do things with sound that had never been done before. To push the limits. To help artists tell their stories, the way they intended. To help people feel these stories.
Nearly six decades later, the song remains the same.
“We are really focused on bringing spectacular experiences in any entertainment. What happens of course is that over time, the way you experience entertainment changes, or the way you interact with entertainment changes,” John Couling, Senior VP of Commercial Partnerships at Dolby, tells Financial Express Online.
Couling has been with Dolby for over twenty years, starting off as an applications engineer working in the then-emerging DVD market, going on to oversee its expansion into streaming and mobile.
“The fundamentals of entertainment haven’t changed whether you are delivering on a physical disk or over the internet. Our job is to really be providing the technologies that help the industry move forward,” Couling says.
To be able to consistently do this, Dolby must learn about new ways of delivery, new markets and customers, and engage with new partners but “that’s something that we do all the time.”
“When something new comes along, it is very natural for us to go and engage with that and become a part of it.”
What that means right now is that you will find Dolby inside televisions and sound bars, next-gen consoles like the Xbox Series X | S, mobile phones like the iPhone 12, TWS earbuds like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, laptops and PCs, and “of course we haven’t forgotten our heritage. You will also find Dolby in a movie theatre.”
“A big part of our skill is being able to serve this broad set of participants, this broad set of partners. As it stands, we have hardware in our business, we have software in our business, we have licensing in our business, we have APIs in our business and all of those are different vehicles to bring the technology to market and put it in a form that is most useful for the customer,” Couling says.
Probably the biggest part of Dolby’s business is audio coding, aka, Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus, technologies that take sound, package it in digital form, reduce the data so it could be sent over the internet, mobile phone networks, and television networks, and later decoded inside consumer electronics devices for a movie theatre-like surround sound experience – going beyond conventional stereo.
Dolby Atmos is an extension of that. Couling goes so far as to call it paradigm shifting. The idea is to think about sound as an object (rather than thinking about channels and speakers) that you can then put anywhere you want, in space. Not only does it give creators an “endless palette”, but it also allows device manufacturers to be “incredibly innovative” about how they deliver it to consumers.
“You can put it into a television with only two speakers and still get this immersive enveloping sound. You can put it into a smartphone, and you can deliver that over two speakers or even over headphones. That technology then really scales across all those different areas.”
But perhaps the most intriguing technologies to have come out from Dolby’s “labs” in recent times is Dolby Vision. A step above HDR10 and HDR10+ formats, Dolby Vision supports 12-bit colour, a theoretical peak brightness of 10,000 nits, and dynamic metadata which gives creators enough legroom to separately optimise each scene during post-production – that together enable more realistic and more powerful visuals.
Dolby Vision IQ, announced at CES last year, builds on top of that by automatically adapting to the light in a room to offer the best picture possible on supported devices.
“In one sense, audio and video could not be more different. In another, they have a common thread which is about unleashing the power of amazing stories and doing that for everyone we can,” Couling says.
And just like that, Dolby (also) became a video company.
“The journey for us starts with the people who have the most creative minds. You know, people who write and perform songs, those who make movies, those who create TV shows. Those are the people who have stories in their minds and what our technology does is that it helps them tell that story in a better way.”
In a way, Dolby is acting like a bridge between creators and consumers. The company puts in as much work into the tools and the creative process as it does into consumer electronics.
“We develop tools that are on mixing stages and dubbing studios, we develop tools that cinematographers, directors and musicians use in order to create their art and we do it in a way that allows other people to be a part of the process too. The creative process is different to different people,” Couling says.
Couling and team “actively” host webinars, take part in trade shows, work with institutions that provide education so people can learn about Dolby technology and what it can do for them, and how they can use it. On the creation side particularly, there is a lot of outreach on the grassroots level.
“If you are already making music in Pro Tools, you are using exactly the same tools to make music in Dolby Atmos in Pro Tools. Same is true if you are editing, say in Blackmagic Resolve. That is critical. If you love a guitar, you want to keep using the same guitar. What we (try to) do is, we put ourselves within the tools that people already use and that is what lowers the barrier, making it easy for people to adopt (our tools).”
The work does not end there. Dolby also provides help in fine-tuning audio/video for instance, during the later stages, to help partners get the most out of its tools from a creative perspective.
“Dolby is nothing without its partners,” Couling says. “They are a big part of what ultimately makes us successful.”
Apple is one of those partners completely re-imagining the way people capture their precious moments by bringing Dolby Vision recording straight to the iPhone. The iPhone 12 is the only smartphone in the world today that can shoot and edit Dolby Vision video.
“What’s incredibly exciting about that is, millions of people using the same technology base as the leading filmmakers in Hollywood and Bollywood, you know around the world and that’s just wonderfully exciting for Dolby where we are trying to enable that creative idea. I think it also shows the power of working with great partners.”
Innovations such as these should also help creators in crossing new barriers, in the wake of a global pandemic, so they can continue to create. Ideas have a knack of coming unannounced after all.
“If you look at the last year and the pandemic, everybody was forced to think quickly. We saw remote productions really grow. All that is down to the flexibility of the tools, to the flexibility of the software that people work with or the cloud infrastructures that they have built. It is much faster, it is much easier, to do today than it was in the past. So, what people do with that is they go and explore and come up with new ideas.”
Another innovation that seems to be a godsend in the current scenario is Dolby Voice, a set of technologies designed to make conference calls feel more natural and less fatiguing. Lenovo announced a couple of new laptops at CES this year, that bring Dolby Voice on to the consumer PC forefront.
“We try to remove the noise that exists in the world around us, so that it is easier for you to hear. We place the different speakers around you in a way, so that your brain can use this spatial separation to help understand who is talking and what is being said. We also increase the far field voice capability. All this contributes to a better call, greater clarity, higher productivity and ultimately a more pleasurable experience,” Couling says.
The final destination
When Dolby deploys its technology in a consumer electronic device like a phone, it also includes technology to maximize the audio regardless of how it is delivered. So, if you have stereo music, it will include technology to make the best use of the Dolby Atmos capability that is there in that phone. But that is not exactly the same as the music which was created in Dolby Atmos.
Dolby is now working extensively to bring Dolby Atmos experience on all the content that people really care about, particularly music and games. QQ speed, launched recently, is the first mobile game to integrate Dolby Atmos.
But despite all the advancements and all that is coming in the days to come, Couling says Dolby is still far from peak innovation.
“Oh, I think there is plenty to keep us busy. There is always a lot that we could do. They say creatives are never satisfied and consumers always want more. So, I am not worried about it ever, feeling like we have achieved our goal. The only thing I really know is, tomorrow we will be even better because the people who make those shows or code those games or write those songs, they are always coming up with new ideas and are always pushing us.”