Remember the first time you watched a DVD? Chances are you were blown away as much—if not more—by the crystal-clear, surround-sound audio as you were by the picture. Craig Eggers, director of consumer technology marketing for Dolby Laboratories, recalls the first time he demonstrated DVD to consumers, back when he worked for Toshiba.
In order to convince Toshiba executives that DVD had the potential to be the "next big thing," Eggers and his colleagues had to put together an "infomercial" that showed an audience's response to their first DVD experience. After showing them Twister in a tricked-out home theater environment, Eggers couldn't wait to get people on record talking about how great the video looked. "Instead, all they wanted to talk about was the sound," he laughs. "They kept saying, ‘Movies never sounded like that when we watched them at home before.'"
Despite the well-established importance of sound in the DVD experience, most of the development in consumer authoring software has focused on the video side. All of the consumer-level DVD authoring tools released in the last three years are held together by one common thread: They give the hobbyist or weekend videographer the video, menu, and titling tools that let them create projects that pack the same kind of visual punch as professionally authored DVDs. The pros can still tell the difference, of course—and it's not long until the look of menu templates becomes as clichéd as that PowerPoint look already is—but for now, the average consumer is still justifiably thrilled with what they can create with MyDVD, iDVD, or DVD MovieFactory.
Audio remains the divider between the pros and the pretenders, but that's all about to change, at least if Dolby has anything to say about it. In March, the noise reduction and surround sound pioneer announced Dolby Digital 5.1 Creator, which is designed to let software developers integrate 5.1 surround capability into consumer-level authoring tools.
According to Eggers, surround sound is now something consumers expect, not merely a feature reserved for the rich or the techno-geek. "If you look at music and entertainment, it's all moving towards 5.1," he says. "People are getting to the point where they want it in their homes, their cars, and even out of their DV cameras. The question, of course, is ‘How do I assemble that content?'" Rather than marketing a separate software program or plug-in, Dolby is working with DVD authoring enterprises to integrate Digital 5.1 Creator technology directly into authoring tools. Dolby is currently talking with several authoring software vendors, Eggers says, and he expects the first Digital 5.1 Creator-powered tool to hit the market by the fall. Eggers says that surround sound is simply a "natural progression" for consumer DVD creation, even if it's only used in the simplest ways. "So many times you'll be watching somebody's vacation video, and you'll be distracted by the narration they recorded while they were shooting," he says. "Well, what if people just had the ability to put the narrative in the rear speakers, and then add music, while still leaving the ambient noise?" The bottom line, Eggers says, is that effective use of sound adds what he calls an "emotive power" to the finished product, one that can't be achieved with visuals alone. "In the right hands, that can be very effective in home video, too," he says. "It adds intensity to the picture." The ability to easily add surround sound to a wedding or other event video, he adds, should be a boon to videographers.
In addition to DVD authoring software, Dolby is working to load Digital 5.1 Creator onto new PCs. The company has already launched its PC Logo program, a partnership with Intel that brands PCs with the Dolby logo and includes three Dolby packages:
• Dolby Sound Room—Includes Dolby Digital, Headphone, Virtual Speaker, and Pro Logic II
• Dolby Home Theater—Includes all the above, plus Dolby Digital Stereo Creator
• Dolby Master Studio—All the above plus Digital Live, Pro Logic IIx, and Dolby Digital 5.1 Creator.
Eggers' says Dolby's negotiations with software vendors are still confidential, though at least two companies—Pinnacle and Ulead—are evaluating Digital 5.1 Creator. Ulead public relations manager Sharna Brockett says that her company believes consumers aren't demanding 5.1 in their authoring software yet, but that Ulead will incorporate it when the market warrants. "It's also important to remember that Dolby licensing has been somewhat prohibitive in the past, which is one of the main barriers to incorporating it into a consumer-level product," she says. "We understand that Dolby sees this problem and will be looking at more ways to make licensing 5.1 more accessible."
Pinnacle has already put its own proprietary matrix audio encoder into its Studio 9 non-linear editing system, one that provides front left, front right, center, and rear audio. "That's currently compatible with all Dolby Pro Logic receivers," says William Chien, director of product marketing for Pinnacle. "The advantage of the Digital Creator technology is that in the future, video editors could create movies with the full five audio channels, and that it would be compatible with all Dolby Digital-compatible systems."
Eggers points to compatibility as Dolby's biggest selling point versus other surround-sound encoders. "There are currently 40 million A/V receivers that are Dolby Digital-equipped," he says. "Other formats can't guarantee that many receivers will have the decoders to play them back."