Dolby Laboratories Acquires Rival IMM Sound

3:00 AM PST 07/23/2012 by Carolyn Giardina

Combining “complementary” audio technology could speed the adoption of the immersive Atmos sound format, a Dolby exec says.

Dolby Laboratories has acquired rival digital cinema sound technology company IMM Sound, a privately owned Barcelona-based business, in a move that Dolby believes will help to speed adoption of its new immersive Atmos sound format. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Dolby and IMM are among a handful of companies that have been aiming to launch the next generation of digital cinema sound -- though Dolby fired the most high-profile shot to date with the recent launch of Atmos.

“IMM Sound was the company that had something similar to what Dolby was doing,” Dolby senior vp cinema Doug Darrow told The Hollywood Reporter. “We thought if we combine forces, it could allow for more rapid adoption.”

In the broad sense, both systems involve immersing the audience in an aural experience by placing speakers around the perimeter of an auditorium, as well as on the ceiling. And both offer tools for sound facilities that would enable more sophisticated sound mixes with the notion of placing “objects” versus “channels.” Darrow told THR that while similar, there are no issues of patent overlap and that the developments are “complementary from a technology standpoint.”

Darrow said the IMM Sound brand will be discontinued and IMM technology would be used to further develop Atmos. “IMM has some enhancements around reverberation and some subtle audio effects in a theater playout system that we haven’t got to yet,” Darrow cited as an example.

The IMM office and development team will remain in Barcelona, and in time, the roughly 40 IMM-equipped theaters in Europe will become Atmos-ready theaters.

Previously announced as an IMM Sound release is director Juan Antonio Bayona’s upcoming drama The Impossible, which stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts and re-creates the tsunami that hit the coastlines of Thailand in December 2004. It is not yet decided if The Impossible, which Summit Entertainment will distribute in the U.S., will be released with IMM Sound or an Atmos sound mix.

Atmos -- which can accommodate as many as 128 channels, or what Dolby now refers to as simultaneous sound elements or objects -- launched for a global audience last month after it was installed in the newly named Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and was used for the first time for the premiere of Disney/Pixar’s Brave at the theater’s grand opening.

About 20 theaters worldwide already have been announced as Atmos sites, and 14 of them, including the El Capitan in Hollywood, participated in Brave's Atmos trial. Darrow expects the release of up to three more Atmos-mixed movies this year.

“We’d like to see about 1,000 [Atmos] screens next year, worldwide,” Darrow said, adding that by combining IMM and Dolby technology, Atmos might emerge as a sort of de facto standard. “In order to achieve that and to make the industry more unified we though this [acquisition] was the right thing to do.”

Others vying for the digital cinema sound market is Barco, whose Auro 11.1 uses 11 channels of sound plus a subwoofer and has a few dozen installations worldwide, including Edwards Grand Palace Stadium 6 in Calabasas, Calif. The first Auro 11.1 release was George Lucas-produced Red Tails, which opened in January.

Iosono, a spinoff company of Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology, introduced the first installation of its immersive sound system at Mann's Chinese 6 Theater in Hollywood during the 2008 Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Convention.

For all of these companies, the wider challenge to adoption might be the transition to digital cinema projection. "There has been around $4 billion spent on digital cinema equipment around the world that is not producing a return on investment. Borrowing more becomes a problem,” MKPE Consulting principal Michael Karagosian recently said in an interview with THR.

Theater owners looking to offer Atmos will be able to upgrade existing systems by adding speakers and amplification. But the "average midsize" cinema auditorium, according to Dolby, can still expect to pay $25,000 to $30,000 for an upgrade.

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