Hot on the heels of our appearances at Blu-Con at the beginning of this month, Mike Palmer here at High-Def Digest and I found ourselves on the move again. This time, we were both invited to visit Dolby headquarters in San Francisco for a conference that the company called the “Fidelity Forum.” Mike is planning to write up some detailed coverage of the event that will run on the site’s main page. In the meantime, I’ll just offer a brief summary of the day and hit the highlights.
For such a grand name, the Fidelity Forum was a surprisingly intimate, low-key affair. In addition to Mike and I, the audience consisted of a (very) small handful of writers from other home theater-oriented web sites. There was no print media present, unless you count the fact that I also write for ‘Home Theater’ magazine. (But I was officially invited for my role on this site.) I guess we were part of an exclusive club, or meant to feel that way. I hold no illusions that the company isn’t planning the same or grander events for other media outlets at different times.
This was an all-day tour of the Dolby offices, led primarily by Craig Eggers, the Senior Manager of Consumer Electronics Partner Marketing. (Whew, what a mouthful!) Other important executives from the company joined the tour throughout the day. We started at the office’s main screening room, which is a dead silent, fully-soundproofed auditorium. It was emphasized to us that this space is a laboratory, not just a place to hang out and watch movies. The seating is designed to provide the same acoustic experience whether there’s a single viewer or a full audience. Noise generators can be activated to simulate normal theatrical venues.
First, we were given demos of Dolby’s new 7.1 theatrical sound format, via clips from ‘Toy Story 2‘, ‘Finding Nemo’, ‘Up‘, and ‘The Incredibles’. Yeah, it’s safe to say that the audio blew away anything I could ever achieve with my meager home theater system. However, I’ve got to be honest here; I wasn’t as impressed with the digital projection. I don’t know what projector they were using, whether it was a theatrical or home theater model. (Most likely theatrical. In either case, it was no doubt something a lot more expensive than what I have at home.) Nonetheless, I could see a screen-door pixel pattern from my seat near the center of the auditorium, and the colors seemed off to me. To be fair, though, the projected image was significantly larger than mine at home.
Next were demos of Dolby 3D, featuring clips from ‘Toy Story 3‘ and ‘Avatar‘, as well as the trailer for ‘Tron Legacy’. The Dolby reps explained how their 3-D format differs from other theatrical 3-D offerings. Its main benefits are a brighter picture, and the ability for theaters to project onto standard white screens, without the need to install special silver screens. This also improves brightness uniformity across the image, and avoids hotspotting. And yet, again, I still felt a little underwhelmed. I experienced a lot of image separation issues when objects moved across the screen. This may have something to do with the color separation process that Dolby uses to create the 3-D effect, or it may just be a personal sensitivity issue. Whatever the cause, I think I prefer RealD in theaters.
None of this is to say that I was unimpressed with the facilities, of course. I would kill to have access to this sort of equipment on a daily basis.
Following all that, we moved to a sound mixing room, where we were shown how soundtracks are created (in this case, primarily music videos and a classical music concert program). This was pretty fascinating. Then we moved to the Home Theater room, where we received demos of ProLogic IIz and Dolby Digital Plus (for its applications on VUDU and Netflix). I’ll let Mike go into more detail on all this when he writes up his own coverage. What I’ll say is that I’ve never really been sold on the need for height channels in a home theater environment, but the demos provided here (‘I Am Legend‘ for movies and ‘Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2’ for videogames) made a good case for them. The added channels genuinely helped to expand the soundstage without sounding gimmicky. Honestly, I might find this more useful than the surround back channels currently installed in my own home theater.
The last demo we received in the Home Theater room was especially neat. We watched the ‘Tron Legacy’ trailer again (in 2-D this time), output in 720p high def and 5.1 surround from a Nokia smartphone plugged into an HDTV and home theater system via an HDMI connection. Dolby is very keen on improving the mobile viewing experience, and this is a very exciting leap forward in that regard.
The final leg of the facility tour was easily the coolest. We visited a little room called the “Sandbox,” where the Dolby engineers get to play. It’s a small room, stripped bare and utilitarian in design except for the fact that there are speakers everywhere. The Sandbox has a 23.1 discrete channel sound system wired up: 16 speakers on stands in a circle at (seated) ear level, 6 speakers hanging from ropes above those, 1 “Voice of God” speaker straight up in the center of the ceiling, and a subwoofer. Here, the engineers can experiment with any sort of speaker configuration and sound format they can dream up (except for speakers in the floor – we were informed that the “puddle splash” effect has not yet been perfected). We listened to several things upmixed to 23.1, including a music cue from Ennio Morricone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ score (which sounded amazing), and a recording of a jet taking off that was remarkably realistic. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for this kind of set-up at home!
The day ended with a roundtable discussion with several Dolby executives and dinner afterwards. Make no mistake, this entire Fidelity Forum was a PR event. Sure, we were wined and dined, with the hope that we’d all come out of this and write about how Dolby is the most awesome company on the face of the planet. My biggest fear going into this was that it would wind up being like some awful time-share real estate seminar – the kind where a company offers you a free weekend at some vacation retreat so long as you agree to sit for an agonizingly long sales pitch while you’re there.
Fortunately, that wasn’t at all the case here. Everyone at the company seemed very forthright in answering questions we asked, even difficult questions about the firm’s products and competitors. They also actively solicited our feedback about what we (and you, our readers) would like to see them do better or focus on in the future. I never felt a hard sales pitch. All in all, this was a good day, and I got to see some cool stuff. I’m glad I went.