Science & Tech

Jaunt Using Dolby Atmos to Tell Stories in Virtual Reality

I’m standing in an abandoned warehouse that’s outfitted with a sinister array of chains, knives, and other implements of torture. From behind me to my left, I hear a young girl scream. As I turn toward the sound, I see her run past me, then disappear through a hole in some plastic sheeting. I dread what will happen next.

OK, fortunately I’m not really in that warehouse. I’m actually in my office. Strapped to my head is a Google® Cardboard virtual reality headset holding a smartphone that’s feeding the headphones on my ears. I’m watching an excerpt from Black Mass, a seriously creepy work of cinematic virtual reality from Jaunt, one of the pioneers of both VR content and capture technology.

Dolby is working with Jaunt to implement our Dolby Atmos® sound technology in the company’s VR content, starting with three applications: excerpts from Black Mass and the monster film Kaiju Fury!, and Live and Let Die, a video from Sir Paul McCartney’s 2014 concert at San Francisco’s iconic Candlestick Park.

Black Mass is a perfect example of the tremendous potential cinematic virtual reality has to transform the way we tell stories. It’s also a great example of why the precise, moving audio of Dolby Atmos is so important to the experience.

When you view Black Mass, it’s as if you are a prisoner in this demented warehouse. You can swivel around a full 360 degrees to see what’s happening, but you can’t move from the spot you’re on.

Why precision audio is essential to VR

The freedom to look where you want is a key difference between conventional film and cinematic virtual reality. (Cinematic VR, by the way, refers to virtual reality films with a clear storyline, as opposed to VR environments that let you explore a setting but have no plot.) In conventional films, the filmmakers control what’s on the screen, so they can ensure that you’re always looking where the action is happening. That’s not the case in cinematic VR, because you’re free to look where you want.

For a work like Black Mass, that leads to a sense of rising terror as you look all around your surroundings and see the signs of danger and insanity around you. But that variable point of view also makes precise, moving sound vital. Since the filmmakers can’t control where you’re looking, they have to use sound to direct your attention.

So while you’re looking at the creepy guy in the black cape and hood, you hear a woman behind you yelling that she’s going to try and escape in the space below a partially closed roll-up door. You spin around and while you’re looking at the door she just slid below, you see her head and shoulders reemerge, panic on her face, as something unseen drags her back behind the door.

The role of Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is perfect for this kind of content. Dolby Atmos allows filmmakers to precisely place and move sounds anywhere in a scene, including overhead. That means that cinematic VR creators can depend on Dolby Atmos to make sure that viewers always know what’s happening—and where it’s happening—in a complex and fascinating environment.

You’ve probably come across Dolby Atmos in a cinema. It debuted in 2012 in the Oscar® winning feature Brave. Since then, it’s been used in more than 230 feature films, including nine of the top 10 grossing movies worldwide in 2014. Dolby Atmos technology is now also available for home theater and on mobile devices like the Amazon Fire™ HDX 8.9.

To me, it’s clear that cinematic virtual reality will play an important role in how we tell stories in the future. And I’m certain Dolby Atmos will be an important part of that future. I can’t wait to see the ways Jaunt and VR filmmakers will use our technology to make us think, make us laugh, make us cry, and, yes, make us whip our heads around in utter fear.