When it came to TVs at CES this year, one catchphrase stood out from the rest: high dynamic range. HDR content and equipment means you’ll get television shows and movies that are brighter and incredibly vivid, with better color reproduction than you’ve ever seen at home. 4K resolution may be nice, but adding high dynamic range to the mix can make it truly spectacular, and Sony, Samsung, LG, and Panasonic all highlighted it over the course of the week.
If the idea sounds familiar, that’s because someone else got the conversation started a year ago: Dolby. And it’s just one more example of how the company best known for audio is completely reshaping the entertainment experience as we know it.
While the company’s noise reduction and surround sound technologies have become mainstays, Dolby entered a new era in 2012. That’s when it announced Dolby Atmos, a total rethink of the way movie sound was mixed and played back in theaters. It gave filmmakers the ability to put sound anywhere they wanted, including directly overhead. That swirly, whirly Gravity sound mix that won an Oscar? That was Atmos.
It wasn’t just a display technology; it was a post-production and delivery specification that would let companies master content not just for today’s current crop of 4K TVs, but for the brighter, more colorful ones that are just around the corner. And it was the kind of forward-thinking approach that only a company like Dolby would take.
Where most parties involved in determining the future of 4K sell products at your local Best Buy, Dolby is at heart an intellectual property company. It only wins if it can invent awesome new technology that appeals to audiences, filmmakers, and manufacturers willing to pay the bill to include it in their products. "We're about ecosytems," says Brett Crockett, Dolby’s Senior Director of Sound Technology Research. "We want to be on the soundstage to capture the actor's and the director's intent. Get it through the entire pipe — whether it's satellite, cable, broadcast, Blu-ray, over-the-top [services] — and whatever the endpoint is. … So we're long-term play kind of people, because that ecosystem is hard to do."
In comparison, TV manufacturers have shown themselves to be remarkably focused on the short term, concerned more with unit sales than the long-term necessity of launching a format. Exclusive 4K content deals like the one Samsung announced with 20th Century Fox this week may be good for Samsung for the next year, but it’s a strike against anyone hoping to see 4K proliferate as soon as possible. The same goes for the constantly shifting 4K brands we’ve seen the last few years (the final name is UHD — Ultra High-Definition — though Samsung is already taking liberties). Not only that, but the companies that talked up high dynamic range this week aren’t actually using Dolby VIsion, opting instead for another method without the long-term benefits of Dolby’s solution — allowing them to tout their own televisions and duck the Dolby licensing fee, but potentially leaving customers facing another UHD specification change in just a few years.
Dolby, however, is unencumbered by the need to move units on a quarterly basis, and its interests — building an ecosystem that stretches from movie theaters to living rooms and back again — line up directly with that of consumers. And creating that ecosystem is exactly what it’s doing.
Following the introduction of Atmos in movie theaters, the company rolled out the in-home version, using specialized speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling of your living room to create the illusion of overhead cues. That same file can work with certified mobile devices, bringing a virtualized version of the mix to regular headphones. And just because movie theater attendance is on the decline doesn’t mean Dolby is stepping away from the theatrical space, either.
Last year it opened the first venue under its "Dolby Cinema" label — an initiative that brings together Atmos, a theatrical version of Dolby Vision, and new laser projectors, along with Dolby-dictated design specifications. The idea is to create a new high-end theatrical experience to battle against the assortment of random formats now populating theaters, bringing all of its technologies together under one roof. It’s Apple’s halo effect strategy in a movie theater, and while the only open venue is in the Netherlands, Dolby should announce news about US locations sometime in 2015.
Granted, Dolby is just one company, and competitors like DTS are readying their own answers to Atmos. But that’s just a sign that Dolby is defining the conversation. The company is making the future, right now, and side stepping the short-term business considerations that have other companies fumbling when it comes to home entertainment. So when Sony, Samsung, and the other members of the UHD Alliance start asking themselves what their next moves should be, perhaps they should ask themselves a simpler question instead:
What would Dolby do?