While the visual side of the theatrical experience has been stealing the headlines in recent years with the advent of digital projection, 3D, and the impending arrival of 48 frames-per-second, the audio side of things has been quietly making advances. When "Brave" arrived in theaters this weekend, it marked the first film to be mixed in Dolby's new Atmos surround sound format.
Atmos represents an exponential increase in the number of speaker channels. While films have been mixed in eight channels for the past few years, Atmos allows for a staggering 128 channels of sound to be distributed over 64 speakers, including a speaker in the ceiling.
The goal here is to allow for more precision and immersion from film soundtracks. With sound traveling more naturally between channels than simply bouncing around from a relative handful of zones, Dolby Atmos will draw audiences in via audio the way digital projection entices viewers visually.
It's been a while since a new sound format emerged like this; readers might recall the emergence of Dolby Digital and DTS surround formats in the 90s, both becoming the dueling standards for the theatrical and home viewing experience. Atmos looks to challenge this in a big way, and it wouldn't be the first time sound has been used as a factor to get audiences into theaters. Walt Disney was experimenting with surround sound all the way back in the '40s for the release of "Fantasia," and the accepted standard of three front speakers with rear surround channels dates back to the late '70s.
However, the home market has caught up with this in recent years, "home theaters" evolving from a niche market to a more common commodity. As such, it makes sense theaters want to stay ahead of the game; if Atmos becomes the standard, it'll be difficult for the experience to ever be replicated at home, thus giving audiences another reason to head out to the theater.
Atmos is currently only set up in 25 theaters. It'll be interesting to see if exhibitors are quick to look into upgrading, especially since many will need to update their projectors for 48fps display by the end of the year in preparation for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
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