Video streaming services have become the site for mini-platform wars unto themselves, with different services rolling out 4K, high-dynamic range video, and other improvements as they jockey for position. Today Netflix announced that it is adding the immersive Dolby Atmos sound format to its repertoire, and the first film to receive the treatment is Bong Joon-ho’s Okja. The film is also being presented in Dolby Vision, the company’s high-dynamic range video format.
Surround sound has been around in movie theaters and at homes for decades, but Atmos — which launched back in 2012 — gives filmmakers increased flexibility in their creative choices. Ceiling-mounted speakers offer the ability to place sound above the audience, but more important is the way that sound is mixed in the first place. Rather than creating a static, fixed mix where different sounds are placed around a defined number of channels, as would happen with a 5.1 and 7.1 systems, Atmos views sound elements as virtual objects that can be placed anywhere in the theater. That provides an incredible amount of versatility, and allows the final mix to scale from massive theaters, to smaller installations, and all the way down to home theater setups. For the latter scenario, a number of Dolby partners have released speakers that bounce audio off the ceiling of a room to help re-create the same kind of immersive soundfield that a proper Atmos installation provides.
As with all new technologies, however, the initial rollout is going to be limited. Compatible LG televisions will offer one way to stream Atmos content, while the Xbox One and Xbox One S will also offer the capability. Atmos home theater setups will also be required, of course, though Xbox users will also be able to listen to the virtualized Atmos mix with headphones if desired.
The number of supported devices will expand over time, as will the titles. But unsurprisingly, Netflix is focusing on its original movies for now, with movies like Blame!, Adam Wingard’s Death Note, and the Will Smith-starring Bright all receiving Atmos releases by the end of the year. It’s a small point of differentiation, but it’s an important one as original content continues to be such a vital part of the long-term strategy of all streaming services. Things like theater-quality surround sound and high-dynamic range video bring the home viewing experience that much closer to the theatrical one, and Netflix’s ability to offer them with its own films gives audiences one more reason to stay home and keep watching.