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Dolby to put Atmos surround sound on tablets, smartphones

The immersive audio that makes movie-goers feel like they're inside the film, rather than just watching it, will be available for Dolby partners to incorporate on mobile by the end of the year.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read

Scene from the film "Gravity," which used Dolby Atmos surround-sound technology. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Anyone who has seen the movie "Gravity" in a Dolby Atmos theater can understand what it's like to truly experience surround-sound.

The viewer becomes completely immersed in booms, echoes, smashes, and whispers -- space debris zooms overhead, loudly crashes into the International Space Station, and then there's total silence with just the faint murmur of Sandra Bullock's panicked breathing.

There's a reason why two of the movie's seven Academy awards were for sound.

Now, Dolby is bringing this same experience to mobile. That's right, it's like a movie theater on your head.

"It gets very exciting when you think of taking that [Atmos] blueprint and putting it on a tablet or smartphone," Dolby Laboratories product manager for mobile Joel Susal said in a presentation. "The goal is to transport you."

Dolby debuted its mobile audio technology during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month. The company explained that by using algorithms running on either a dedicated audio processor chip or an ARM processor core, it's able to simulate Atmos-like surround-sound by tricking listeners' brains into thinking the audio is 3D.

Atmos was launched in 2012 and since then all major Hollywood studios, along with top movie directors and sound mixers, have used it. Currently, there are 450 Atmos screens around the world and more than 100 films have incorporated the technology, including "Gravity" and "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug."

Susal calls Atmos technology "object-based." This means that sound designers can place or move audio anywhere they like in an Atmos theater, such as the ceiling or front left wall. The sound can also move across theaters' speakers, which makes for a very life-like experience. For example, when a helicopter flies across a movie screen, viewers can hear the sound of the blades travel overhead and across the ceiling from one end to the other.

"Atmos revolutionizes the way sound is created, communicated and how it is disseminated," Susal said. "The artist is free to put the audio where it belongs."

While headphones only have two speakers placed over listeners' ears, Dolby's new mobile audio technology still makes it feel like sound is coming from overhead, down below, and all other directions. The idea is for users to be able to completely plunge themselves into a movie, video game, or music that's stored on their tablet or smartphone.

To get the mobile technology to market, Dolby will partner with various hardware makers. Susal said the technology could be incorporated into most devices and operating systems using the high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 chip.

It's not yet clear what the name of the mobile audio technology will be or who Dolby is talking to for partners. But, the company did say the first iteration of the technology will be ready for its partners by the end of this year. It remains unknown, however, when the public will be able to get their hands, or ears, on it.

Dolby Atmos sound tech puts you in Smaug's lair
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