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AMC and Dolby team up to make the laser-powered movie theaters of the future

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Over the past decade there's been a home entertainment revolution as higher-resolution video, improved display technology, and streaming services have changed the way we watch movies and TV. The good old movie theater, however, has been a bit neglected; aside from improved sound and the frustration that is 3D, there's been no truly radical, widespread improvement since the move to digital projection. Today US theater chain AMC and Dolby are announcing a partnership that promises to change that, bringing a new kind of high-end, laser projection theatrical experience to your local multiplex — and the first screens are arriving this May.

High dynamic range video comes to the movie theater

The deal marries AMC's own premium theater screens with Dolby Cinema, a suite of projection and sound technologies that Dolby first launched internationally last year. As you might suspect, a key component is Dolby Atmos, the company's latest surround sound technology, but where things get really interesting is on the visual side. The theaters will use the theatrical version of Dolby Vision, the high dynamic range content and display solution that first caught our eye a few years ago. In theaters, that amounts to new dual 4K laser projectors created with Christie, along with specifically mastered, HDR versions of the movies themselves. According to Dolby, it all results in a significantly brighter and more detailed image with better contrast and dynamic range than any previous projection system — even the gold standard. "It's far beyond the dynamic range of any film system that was ever in use," Doug Darrow, Dolby's senior vice president of cinema told me during a phone briefing. "This will be something that people have never seen before."

The first theaters that AMC will be updating with Dolby Cinema will be its high-end, "AMC Prime" screens, which only exist in a handful of locations nationwide. Those theaters, which already use Atmos surround sound, boast motorized reclining theater seats rigged with transducers that tie into a film's soundtrack, so when Optimus Prime shoots off into space at the end of Transformers: Age of Extinction, the seat rumbles to match. Four of the locations — Los Angeles, Kansas City, Houston, and Atlanta — will debut Dolby Cinema in mid-May, with an additional four locations to follow by the end of June. The chain will then begin converting additional screens into Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime venues, and expects to have 50 locations active by the end of 2018, with the number hitting 100 by 2024.

"We were frankly blown away by what we saw."

If that sounds like a long-term play, it is. As theatrical windows shrink and ticket prices rise, exhibitors are under increasing pressure to give moviegoers a reason to leave their homes and head to theaters in the first place. It's why we've seen the rise of IMAX, 4DX, and half a dozen different flavors of bigger-screen, "premium" theatrical experiences; when audiences can watch 4K HDR movies at home, theaters have to offer something unique beyond sticky floors and popcorn. As AMC sees it, the improved picture in these new theaters will be a compelling part of that argument. "When we saw it, we were frankly blown away by what we saw," explained John McDonald, executive vice president of AMC's US and Canadian operations. "We're very hopeful that this will be a game changer for us, and for the industry."

Of course, Dolby's not alone in trying to move the ball forward. IMAX has its own new laser projection system, and gave the technology a splashy US debut at the Los Angeles premiere of Furious 7. And while the two technologies may appear to be trying to do the same thing, McDonald says the chain sees IMAX as a format that will live in harmony with Dolby Cinema, rather than serve as a competitor (IMAX and AMC Prime both fetch the same $5 premium in ticket price).

In any case, the real test of these new theatrical laser projectors will be when audiences can see them in action for themselves. Neither Dolby nor AMC would reveal what movie the upgraded screens will be launching with, but with The Avengers: Age of UltronMad Max: Fury Road, and Tomorrowland all debuting in May there will be plenty of titles to make an impression with.

Verge Video from CES 2015: Dolby has a better vision for the future of TV