How Dolby Vision and Atmos could take VR immersion to another level

But we need a revolution in resolution first
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It's easy to wave off great sound and video quality until you actually experience it. Until you can feel the floor rumble below your feet and the sound crawling across walls and moving around the ceiling. Until you look straight ahead and see the deepest, darkest blacks you've ever seen surrounded by rich colors and absurd clarity.

That's the power of Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision in Dolby's in-house cinema, which Wareable recently had a chance to visit. Dolby's audio/video technology is the real deal, and the way it's using sensors to create next-level experiences is fascinating. But what will happen when all of this can translate to VR?

Read this: How Oculus is fixing VR's focus problem

We stepped into Dolby's biophysical lab, the secret source of all of the company's technology, to peek behind the curtain a little bit.

Wearing your reactions

How Dolby Vision and Atmos could take VR immersion to another level

It's a bit difficult to focus on one thing when you step into Dolby's biophysical lab, your eyes want to race in every direction at once. On the right, there's a big screen displaying real-time information from sensors connected to a wearer sitting on a couch in the middle of the room. On the left, a monitor displays thermal imaging from cameras pointed at that same subject.

That subject is almost alien. She's got a cap with all kinds of wires and doodads - a 64-channel dry wireless EEG. Then there's the sleeve of technology on her left arm, with small sensors wrapped around her fingers attached to a small white box on her forearm.

These sensors are measuring brain waves, heart rate and galvanic skin response as she stares - still and seemingly calm, like something from a horror movie - at a video of two leather-clad women firing flamethrowers at each other.

Poppy Crum, Dolby's chief scientist, tells us that this lab is all about enabling sensory systems, measuring the human experience to content and helping the company fine-tune the algorithms it uses to create technology like Vision and Atmos - making them as immersive as possible.

How Dolby Vision and Atmos could take VR immersion to another level

For example, when they developing Dolby Vision and testing it in the lab, people's cheeks were flush red and releasing a ton of heat. At first, they were worried the technology was overheating the display and giving off too much heat. Thanks to their cadre of sensors, they were able to figure out that the images were so bright it was tricking the brain into thinking it was actually hot, which cued the flushing red cheeks.

Data that can figure out how people react to content is useful for regular old TVs, but it could be game changing for something like VR. Let's imagine you're riding a dragon in VR, and the developer knows how bright and red they need to make the fire so that your brain thinks it's real, flushing your cheeks and making you feel warm.

But that's not all, Dolby's data can also be used to predict what's happening in the content itself. Like when Dolby was able to sense when goals occurred during a soccer match by just looking at the galvanic skin response data alone. This could add a level of immersion in social experiences, like a cooperative story-based game where the developers know how and when to animate your fellow adventurer's faces to make that scary goblin or amazing bit of wonder feel more real.

Crum didn't want to outwardly confirm Dolby's plans in AR and VR, but she did say the company wants immersive technologies to be more engaging, more aware, more connected and more efficient. The only question is how Dolby can fully jump into the world of VR and AR.

Dolby reality

How Dolby Vision and Atmos could take VR immersion to another level

"The future of AR, the future of VR, all of these technologies aren't just about one sense or the other, they're about the interplay between the senses of the world and the experience of the individual and the state of the user," Crum says. "So it's always about personalization and contextual optimization and getting those right."

All of the data that Dolby is collecting is being used on a research-level for augmented and virtual reality technologies, Crum says. Thus far, the company's only foray into these mixed reality technologies is Atmos for VR, which allows sound designers for VR experiences to create precisely placed sounds that can give you a stronger sense of space than regular stereo sound.

So developers can place sound in specific locations within a scene and then pair that with head tracking, so that the sounds know where you're looking in the scene and can adjust the sound. Dolby says this is precise and powerful enough that you could do an audio-based journey through environments. Developers are still learning to add this, but so far the biggest experience to include it is Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.

What's missing, however, is Dolby Vision. Roland Vlaicu, Dolby's VP of multi-screen services video, says that won't happen until there's display technology that can get rid of VR's resolution issue. Once that's sorted, adding high dynamic range and wide color gamuts wouldn't be as much of a problem.

While Dolby wants to remain coy on its future AR and VR plans, it's not difficult to see how its technology could help make both realities that much more immersive. We were given a series of demos on Dolby's technology in a series of environments, from the cinema to the home to mobile and even nightclubs.

The constants were always an effort to achieve true blacks and bright, rich colors in video. In audio, it was always an effort to create precise, full sound that made you feel fully immersed. When they were on display together, it was easy to forget where we were and what we were doing, you wanted to dive into the content they were showing off.

That level of immersion in passive experiences like music and movies is one thing, but in an already-immersive category like AR or VR? All we have to do is wait.

How we test

Husain Sumra


Husain joined Wareable in 2017 as a member of our San Fransisco based team. Husain is a movies expert, and runs his own blog, and contributes to MacRumors.

He has spent hours in the world of virtual reality, getting eyes on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR. 

At Wareable, Husain's role is to investigate, report and write features and news about the wearable industry – from smartwatches and fitness trackers to health devices, virtual reality, augmented reality and more.

He writes buyers guides, how-to content, hardware reviews and more.

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