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Inside Dolby Laboratories’ New Headquarters

by Paul Strauss
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Dolby was kind enough to invite me into their brand new headquarters building in San Francisco. The 16-story, 300,000 square foot building brings together research, engineering, marketing, business and operations teams in a single location, and is packed top to bottom with scientific labs for creating the next generation of audio and video technologies.

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Since Dolby sees their business sitting at the intersection of art and science, the space is also dripping with art. The building features 36 original artworks, each inspired by or a reflection of Dolby’s influence on sound and vision over its 50 year history.

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Walking through the building is like taking a tour of a contemporary art museum. The lobby features an immersive audio-visual installation with a 62-foot-long LED screen with an approximate resolution of 7 million pixels, and surrounded by dozens of Dolby Atmos speakers. The system is dynamic and can be loaded with different installations, the first of which is a procedurally-generated audio and visual landscape by Reza Ali and Ryan McGee.

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The work spaces throughout the building are wonderful, offering a mix of shared workspaces, individual cubicles with the latest in ergonomic furniture, and unreservable work rooms.

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And while Dolby assured me that droids R2-D2 and R5-D4 hanging out in the technical library weren’t actually employees, I like to think they’re secretly working on the audio mix for The Phantom Menace.

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Interspersed between the art and the corporate workspaces are over 100 labs, which are used to test, prototype, and refine the latest audio, video and interactive gear. Audio rooms feature special acoustic diffusers and absorbers to create a desired sound profile, and an array of speakers and testing gear that would make any audiophile or home theater enthusiast drool with envy.

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The labs are backed by control rooms, which house racks filled with amplifiers, patch bays, and other behind-the-scenes gear. There are also mixing and screening rooms for creating and viewing Dolby Audio, Atmos and Vision content.

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One of the more amazing labs I visited was the Biophysical Sensory Lab. This space is designed to measure emotional, attention, and physiological responses to various stimuli. In this case, a subject was connected to an EEG, galvanic response, and heart rate sensor, while their eye movements were tracked. Data was being captured as they watched HDR video content from a spectacular Dolby Vision monitor that I now want in my living room. Once you’ve seen Pacific Rim in HDR, you can’t go back. It’s possible that this sort of data might not just be used to drive product design, but to create interactive experiences that use biofeedback.

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Dolby is also putting the finishing touches on a Sensory Immersion Lab which will monitor senses while subjects are surrounded with huge, high-resolution HDR video on an 8-foot-high hemispherical screen, and placed into simulated environments enabled by more than 40 custom speakers and Atmos surround technology. I so want to go check out that lab once it’s complete.

The building is a true showcase for both art and science, and will also serve as home to one of the country’s first Dolby Cinema theatres, a 200-seat venue that will be used to both test content and for special events.

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As I mentioned at the start of this article, the building is as much an art museum as it is a workplace. Here are just a few of the cool modern art pieces on display:

Ears by Nikki Starz

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Ears by Nikki Starz

Dazzle by Kevin Byrd

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Dazzle by Kevin Byrd

Untitled (San Francisco Skyline) by Siggi Eggerston

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Untitled (San Francisco Skyline) by Siggi Eggerston

Dolby Inventions by Jason Kofke

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Dolby Inventions by Jason Kofke

The Nature of Sound V.1 by Rob Lowe

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The Nature of Sound V.1 by Rob Lowe

Moment by Studio Studio

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Moment by Studio Studio

Dolby Circuit Board by Shawna Peterson

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Dolby Circuit Board by Shawna Peterson

One of my favorite pieces has to be the giant Knob Wall, created by Because We Can. It has over 2400 knobs, each of which can be turned, several of which control the LED illumination at the base of the wall, and one of which goes to 11.

Knob Wall by Because We Can

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Knob Wall by Because We Can

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Dolby also converted an old experimental beam-forming loudspeaker array into a work of art, because it really does look that awesome.

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And speaking of This is Spinal Tap, somebody at Dolby has a sense of humor, commissioning this Stefan Kjartansson piece titled You Don’t Do Heavy Metal in Dobly – a reference to a hilarious and memorable malapropism spoken by Tap’s band manager/Yoko Ono, Jeanine.

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Dolby has produced some incredible and cutting-edge technology for the entertainment industry since Ray Dolby founded the company back in 1965. I’m certain that bringing its team together under a single roof, packed with amazing technology, and brimming with creative stimuli will only serve to make the next 50 years even more amazing.

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