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Dolby's massive new headquarters meshes art, technology and science

The audio company's 16-story structure in San Francisco features stimulating visuals as a tribute to its history.

Interactive sculpture "Moment" by motion designer Pablo Gnecco is one of many displays at Dolby's new headquarters in San Francisco. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- The distinctive surround sound is here. So are the bright lights, big screens and some eye-catching visuals -- as well as a couple of droids.

This isn't the grand opening of a new cineplex but the new San Francisco headquarters for Dolby Laboratories, the tech giant synonymous for its sights and sounds for some of Hollywood's biggest films and television shows. Featuring more than 100 research labs searching for new ways to capture people's attention and imagination, the 16-story building is located in the evolving, yet rugged Mid-Market neighborhood, an area that has emerged as an urban hub for tech companies.

The unveiling of Dolby's new headquarters comes a little more than two years after the audio giant bought the 354,000-square-foot building for a reported $110 million. The wooden, rust-colored structure is an ode to the storied company's half-century history, which includes winning 11 Academy Awards and 15 Emmy awards. Other tech companies including Twitter, Square and Uber are just blocks away.

Underscoring the company's emphasis on the intersection of art and science, pieces of art -- commissioned by the company to inspire creativity -- are displayed near cubicles, communal spaces and long hallways. In true Dolby fashion, there's a 200-seat state-of-the art cinema under construction, and a 60-foot-wide video wall in the lobby displaying colorful imagery greets the company's 750 employees.

"We think of this as vertical village. We are all about studying the art and the sciences and the engineering of audio and visual experiences," Vince Voron, a Dolby vice president and executive creative director, said during a media tour of Dolby's new digs on Tuesday. In a nod to the company's legacy in motion pictures, the event also had legendary Star Wars characters R2-D2 and R5 on hand.

Popular Star Wars characters R2-D2 and R5-D4 were on hand during a media tour of Dolby's new headquarters in San Francisco James Martin/CNET

Dolby CEO Kevin Yeaman said he's excited by the creative collaboration made possible by having all of his employees under one roof instead of scattered in three locations around San Francisco.

"I hear so many stories from employees forming interactions they otherwise wouldn't have," Yeaman said. "I've seen these common spaces come to life. It's those unstructured interactions that lead to the sharing of ideas and moments of innovation."

Yeaman added that he doesn't have an office as he prefers to work in various spaces throughout the building. He compares it to always working remotely.

"I love the change. I don't have a space, so I'm interacting on a more frequent basis," he said. "It's also an opportunity to tour the labs on our floors because they are ever-evolving with the projects going on inside of them."

A scientist gives a demonstration inside a biophysical sensory lab during a tour of Dolby's new headquarters. James Martin/CNET

One of those projects is inside the Sensory Immersion Lab, where Dolby is using a multitude of specially built speakers and projectors to rigorously study a subject's physiological changes while watching a virtual reality environment, which could range from a dark cave to the stage at Carnegie Hall.

"We're going for a place where someone can behave very naturally in a multi-sensory environment that can allow them to be transported to new places," said Poppy Crum, a head scientist at Dolby. "We want to see how it affects them."

In another lab, scientists studying biophysical sensory responses put a cap of sensors on another scientist's head while he watches an action movie. They want to capture his every emotion, if possible, Crum said.

While the labs can provoke emotion, the art around Dolby's headquarters can do the same. One polyurethane display called "Ears," by Atlanta-based Nikki Starz, features more than 600 multicolored plastic ears, a fun "pop-art homage" to the "superior hearing" required of those who work at Dolby.

"I just wanted to do something bright and flashy," she said, also preferring to keep the name of the ear's owner a mystery.

More than 600 colorful plastic "Ears" are display inside Dolby's new headquarters. James Martin/CNET

There's also the "Knob Wall" a collection of more than 2,400 knobs and volume controls, designed by the Oakland, California-based studio Because We Can. The wall encourages employees to find certain knobs that control 250 LED lights displayed at the bottom, said artist Jillian Northrup.

"We want to not only engage our employees, we want them to be proud when they bring their friends and family to the building," said Voron. "When I bring my kids here, they just think I'm cool and work at a cool place and that makes me happy."