Dolby Atmos is a Next Generation Audio (NGA) technology that’s gaining considerable ground, especially in music, eSports and sports. John Maxwell Hobbs speaks to Anaïs Libolt, Director of Broadcast & Content in Europe for Dolby to get a snapshot of progress.
Next Generation Audio (NGA) is an audio technology that provides an immersive and interactive audio experience for the viewers and is an upgrade to traditional audio technologies that have been used in broadcasting for decades, such as stereo and surround sound. NGA can deliver a personalised and dynamic audio experience, which can be customised according to the preferences of the listener.
Dolby Atmos and Next Generation Audio
Atmos is the immersive component of Dolby’s NGA technology. The technology was first introduced in cinemas in 2012 and has since expanded to home theatres, gaming consoles, and mobile devices. More recently, Dolby Atmos has found its way into the world of broadcasting, bringing a new level of audio quality to live sports events, TV shows, and other live productions.
Because Dolby Atmos is object-based, sound is not limited to channels or speakers; it is free to move and flow around the viewer, creating a three-dimensional sound experience that is more akin to real life. This can be especially useful in sports broadcasting, where viewers want to feel like they are right in the middle of the action.
“There have been plenty of developments in Atmos in different directions recently,” said Anaïs Libolt, Director of Broadcast & Content in Europe for Dolby. “The biggest one is probably music. We also have somebody in charge of developing gaming in Europe, working with gaming studios. There is the eSports angle which is quite close to broadcasting. And podcasting, which I think is interesting to explore especially, narrative podcasts.”
The biggest use of the technology in broadcasting has been in sport. Libolt describes how Dolby Atmos is making its way into broadcast media. “We develop a lot of sports events,” she said. “It’s not new if you live in UK and watch BT Sport and Sky with English Premier League, but the development of more broadcasts across Europe and across the world is something new. There were a lot of broadcasters using it for the World Cup last December.”
Libolt highlighted the recent adoption of Dolby Atmos by India’s Star Sports for their coverage of IPL 2023 Premier League Cricket. One feature of the broadcast is the ‘Ambience Only’ mode that will mute the commentary at the touch of a button and provide the sound captured by the more than 40 microphones placed around the stadium. Dolby has ongoing trials with Canal+ in France, TVP in Poland, among other broadcasters.
Dolby Atmos: Workflow integration
The key to the adoption of a new technology by production teams is the availability of equipment that can be easily integrated into existing workflows.
“In live production usually it’s an OB van, or more recently, remote production facilities,” said Libolt. “We initially supplied devices built by Dolby for monitoring and authoring. Consoles are now ready for immersive audio natively more and more, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be Dolby equipment, it can be equipment from a partner.” Calrec, Avid, and DiGiCo have all recently released audio desks that support live mixing in Dolby Atmos.
Libolt emphasises the flexibility provided by Dolby’s technology. “You can send PCM uncompressed audio without metadata if you want, and then because the broadcaster knows exactly where the audio tracks are, they can then do their own mix with their own commentator and then create the metadata afterwards,” she said.
“Or you can send the audio tracks with a metadata track, via serial ADM, which is a serialised version of the ADM file format, which is it’s relatively new. It was it was created by the EBU and the ITU, so it’s an open standard.
“Another approach is Dolby ED2, which is an evolution of Dolby E. It’s a compressed format - only if you want to take less space and have everything on one or two AES pairs. We are making a lot of effort to get the PCM plus serialised ADM method adopted by the industry because we believe it’s a very convenient standard. It’s open so everybody can contribute and develop products for it, and a lot of applications can emerge from that.”
Dolby Atmos: Audience experience
Even more important than the adoption of new production technologies, is the audiences’ ability to access them and whether or not they find them valuable.
Libolt discusses the factors involved in consumer adoption of Dolby Atmos. “There are different elements to that,” she said. “When we speak about live sports, probably the most important element of NGA is immersive. It’s relatively easy because the big championships like the World Cup, the Champions League, and Euro are produced natively in immersive audio. You can also distribute it in Dolby Digital Plus to almost all devices, and you can also choose to encode in AC-4 for NGA applications. That’s what France Television has done for several years in trials. They also announced their switch to UHD and NGA next year.”
The personalisation features enabled by Dolby AC-4 are also important for creating customer value. “There are other features of NGA that are interesting to explore and need a bit more thinking,” said Libolt.
“The accessibility part, with what we call ‘dialogue enhancement’ - the ability for the consumer to select a way of hearing the content with clearer dialogue. Not everybody is going to receive their content with a separate dialogue - movies and series are sometimes delivered to the broadcaster mixed. So, we try to make it easy for the audience by having a solution for this type of content. The benefit is not only for content created with separate dialogue tracks and it’s already in all TVs that support AC-4 today.”
The object-oriented nature of NGA provides for enhanced accessibility as well. “If you think of audio description today, it’s a stereo track which is probably not optimised at all in terms of bitrate and spatialisation,” said Libolt.
“So, you get the worst experience when you select it. We think that people needing audio description usually also have extra sensitivity to audio, because they don’t see well. So why should they get a diminished audio experience?”
With Dolby Atmos and Dolby AC-4, audience members can access high quality audio description channels while also receiving all the immersive objects as well.
There is real world data regarding the audiences’ views in relation to the accessibility features in Dolby Atmos. “There have been studies with broadcasters that met with their audiences that show that it’s something that they value. And this is something that they ask for,” said Libolt.
Dolby Atmos: The future
Dolby Atmos has developed significantly since its introduction just over a decade ago, and its evolution continues. Libolt can see a place for the technology beyond cinemas and TV. “Everything which is audio-only, like podcasts, is an interesting thing to follow,” she said.
“I think live music is also something that probably we will develop a bit more. Not only people watching on TV, but also on their mobile phones or in the metaverse. And live music streamed in digital in virtual environments where you can see a concert and be with your friends and enjoy it as if you actually went to the concert.”
“Also, we are starting to add Dolby Atmos to cars. The first car manufacturer to launch was Mercedes. Today, it’s only music, that’s probably going to evolve to audio and video. This is a perfect environment to listen to immersive audio.”
“Something that has emerged recently is what we call the ‘set-top box sound bar’ - an integrated soundbar,” said Libolt. “There are two types of devices, a very small one, and a larger one that looks like a soundbar. Everything’s inside. You have the set-top box and the Atmos experience out-of-the-box, and it’s quite a successful device. The experience compared to the size of the devices is quite amazing. This is something that we can see set-top box OEMs pushing. And it’s interesting for the market. I think operators are challenged today to find space in the living room. With all the Smart TV apps, they are losing the control of the remote, the subscribers are going somewhere else when they are not in the service. So, this is a way for them to keep their subscribers inside their own environments and do everything from there with the best quality.”
Traditionally, Dolby enabled technologies have been hardware based, but that is beginning to change. “We have Dolby IO, a separate branch in Dolby looking after solutions for developers,’ said Libolt. “There is a lot that can be done by software. It’s a hybrid world today. We need much more flexibility than 10 years ago. And we need to have solutions that can evolve with time so we can add features and things like that. The software component is definitely something interesting for us.”