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Dolby’s vision for a five screen world

The second screen was everywhere at IBC 2011, linking TV with smart phones and tablets. Among the many companies looking at this area is Dolby Laboratories, which envisions a five-screen future. Kevin Hilton looks at the approach.

Casual visitors to this year’s International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) could have been forgiven for thinking they were at a computer or mobile phone show. Some parts of the RAI Centre were dominated by mobile and new media technology, which sometimes threatened to overshadow the more traditional broadcast technology that is the core of the IBC. The idea of TV and radio services for “handheld devices” – a catch-all term that originally almost exclusively meant mobile phones – has been with us for at least ten years. Broadcast companies like Arqiva expanded into these new areas and worked with mobile phone companies such as Nokia on mobile TV projects but the expected revolution did not happen. As the telecoms market prepares for the coming of 4G services, which will sit in the frequency spectrum vacated by analogue TV channels, and the new breed of handheld devices come thick and fast – smartphones including the iPhone, Android, HTC and Nokia N9 (pictured) and tablet computers such as the iPad, Acer and Kindle Fire – the signs are that full entertainment on the move is becoming a practical reality. Dolby Laboratories has its roots in more traditional areas. Founder Ray Dolby worked on the development of videotape machines at Ampex and then expanded on that work to produce noise reduction systems for music recording and reproduction, predominantly during the heyday of the cassette. This led into surround sound for the cinema, which, in turn, moved into video – these days DVD and Blu-ray Disc (BD) – and TV. The possibilities of new media did not pass Dolby by, however. The company produced headphone surround systems for PC games playing and, more recently, Dolby Mobile, aimed at the cell phone market. While the market did not rush to embrace these systems, Dolby stuck with them. Today it must be hoping that the time has come when such technologies will have the outlet originally pictured for them. Dolby made a big push during IBC with the claim of delivering a “cinematic experience” over five screens. This goes from the Big Screen in cinemas to the four screens at home or on the move: television, computers, phones and tablets. Rob France, senior product marketing manager for Dolby’s Professional Broadcast Solutions division, comments that the company is looking to “add benefits on the audio side” by bringing the feel of the cinema into the home. “We’ve seen a growth in 7.1 because of 3D,” he says, “and now broadcasters and other service providers want to deliver the same experience to their subscribers over a variety of platforms and format.” Dolby has worked on its established 5.1 surround sound products for cinema and TV – primarily Dolby Digital – to produce systems that are better suited for IPTV on computers and delivery to mobile phones and other handhelds. France says Dolby Digital Plus is part of the new approach because of its ability to produce the same quality as Dolby Digital at lower bandwidths. Mobile phones are also now a major target for companies like Dolby. “We’re looking at how to link into home theatre systems from mobile phones,” explains France. “There is now HDMI connectivity on TV sets and many mobiles, such as the Nokia and HTC, have Dolby Digital Plus capability, so we can connect the two, which is something consumers are beginning to demand.” Dolby Mobile appears to have found its time, with manufacturers of new media equipment integrating it into systems. Acer recently announced the ICONIA TAB A500, the first tablet to feature the technology. Dolby has also expanded the Mobile range with a Media Generator for preparing material to be used on handheld devices. The Media Generator includes encoders for both Dolby Digital Plus and Pulse, the stereo system designed for music and short TV programming transmitted to mobile platforms with restricted bandwidths. Developers like Dolby are pushing on with developing technologies that allow full cinematic sound mixes to be reproduced on devices not just away from the TV screen but away from the home. But not everyone has embraced home cinema, partly because of the problems involved in fitting numerous loudspeakers into an average living room. And although watching TV and movies on the move is immediately attractive to some people, there is a corresponding number who do not see the appeal at all. So while it does seem that the time has come for systems like Dolby Mobile, there are still doubts over how much of a market is out there.