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From Sound To Light: Audio Leader Dolby Promises A Leap Forward In Imaging

Audio technology innovator Dolby Laboratories is expanding its brand to pictures. After 10 years of development, Dolby has produced a new imaging system that the company says delivers brighter, higher contrast, more realistic pictures.

From Sound To Light: Audio Leader Dolby Promises A Leap Forward In Imaging
[EQ Image: Bodyki238 via Shutterstock]

Dolby is seeing the light.

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Most people know Dolby Laboratories as a sound technology innovator. But for the last decade, in an effort to make a name in other entertainment technologies, its engineers have been developing a new type of imaging system, Dolby Vision–unveiling at CES this week–that promises greater brightness, color contrast, and color range.

Dolby’s prototype monitor, left, displays an image graded to take advantage of up to 4,000 nits of brightness while a standard HD monitor displays the current 100-nit standard at right. “Nits” are a measurement of luminosity.Photo by Thom Brekke

“We’ve been producing imagining technology mostly in the professional space,” says Roland Vlaicu, Dolby’s senior director of broadcasting imaging. “But we feel this is a game changing moment for Dolby with consumers as it steps from audio to entertainment, and integrates audio with imaging. It also opens creative possibilities for business, retailers, and storytellers, who are able to work with the full range of colors as we all as dramatically enhanced dynamic range instead of the compromised palette and range allowed by today’s technology.”

Roland Vlaicu

The technology has already attracted interest from TV manufacturers and distributors. At CES, running January 7-10 in Las Vegas, Sharp and TCL Multimedia will showcase prototype televisions featuring Dolby Vision. Amazon (Amazon Instant Video), Microsoft (Xbox Video), VUDU, and Netflix hope to deliver entertainment once Dolby Vision-enabled sets and mastered content are in place.

Where the current technology dissipates most of the colors, brightness, and contrast captured by cameras by the time it reaches consumers, Dolby says its Dolby Vision enables truer color and higher dynamic range, and reproduces it along the production pipeline–i.e., editing, color correction, etc.–until it reaches the consumer.

Standard picture at left; Dolby Vision image at right.

The secret is in more robust pixels. Not simply more pixels.

Patrick Griffis

“More pixels does not mean more resolution,” says Patrick Griffis, Dolby’s executive director of technology strategy, Office of the CTO. “There’s so much hoopla now about ‘the only thing you need for more resolution is more pixels’ and that’s simply not true. You have to also look at contrast sensitivity, higher dynamic range, and pixels that can hold more color information.”

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The Three Grand Challenges

Dolby engineers faced several hurdles in the process. The first involved building a special prototype TV that could display incredibly bright images at roughly 40 times the industry standard in terms of peak brightness. Developed to understand the technology (as opposed actually getting into the hardware business), the Dolby prototype involved expensive high-powered LEDs, which have since come down in price enough for mass production, along with increased market maturity around other display technologies.

The second was increasing the contrast–the difference between bright and dark areas of the picture. Displays with greater contrast can show more subtle gradations between shades of color–essentially more colors–for a more realistic image. Dolby engineers accomplished this by increasing the bit depth of each pixel to enable it to store more color information.

Standard picture on left; Dolby image on right.

Pixels are comprised of red, blue, and green lights, and a computerized chip that alters the intensities of the lights to produce various colors. Standard pixels have 8 bits offering a 256-step range for each color. Dolby Vision pixels have 12 bits (enabling 4096 gradient steps per color) and can handle up to 16 bits (for 65,536 levels). More steps support a higher dynamic range, but can also describe a larger color volume.

Finally, they had to come up with an algorithm that enabled the enhanced image to adjust to any monitor, whether Dolby Vision-enabled or not.

“Our passion is helping creatives tell great stories and preserving their creative intent through the entire ecosystem–broadcast, computers, mobile devices, and cinema–and then work with partners to give them the ingredient technology to execute that vision,” says Griffis.

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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