I should love PSVR 2’s Virtual Cinema, but it’s half-baked without Dolby Atmos

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I’ve always liked the idea of ​​using virtual reality as a personal cinema. Few of us have the space for a really big home theater projection screen, but with virtual reality you can get that feeling even sitting in a small room, and that was one of my most popular features. expected from PSVR 2.

So when Sony announced that PSVR 2 would have a cinematic mode, I was so happy – at first. The 1080p quality video screen is fair enough, considering the device only has 4K in total. The ability to have a native 24fps refresh rate will hopefully mean you get that perfect cinematic feel for motion that most TVs in homes today can’t even get. properly. As someone who goes to the movies several times a week, this seems perfect when I want to watch a full-scale movie when my TV is otherwise busy.

But here’s the thing: there’s no mention of cinematic audio support to match the visuals. In particular, what we need from Sony here is Dolby Atmos, for a full 3D audio experience… but Sony hasn’t yet supported Dolby Atmos on the PS5, and there’s no indication that will start. now. (I’ve contacted Sony to ask what audio formats can be supported and will update if they provide confirmation.)

Why is this so important? Well, sound is just as much a part of the cinematic experience as the visuals, so I’m not sure cinematic mode can really be called that if it doesn’t deliver the soundtrack at its best, and d in a way that matches how visuals work.

The case of sound followed by the head

For those who’ve never tried cinema mode on the original PlayStation VR, or something like the Meta Quest 2, the crucial part is that it’s not like video plays on the screens attached in front your eyes. It takes place in a 3D world, as if you were sitting in a cinema. When you tilt or turn your head, the screen stays in its position in the virtual space. This means you don’t experience eye strain looking at it, as it feels far away. On the original PSVR, this was all too low-res to really satisfy, but that’s not the case in the new version.

But audio will also need to happen in head-tracked 3D space, just like the visuals. Just as the screen stays at a particular point in space, the center channel should always come from the virtual screen, with other channels in the right places relative to that.

Dolby Atmos in a theater diagram showing speaker layout

Here’s a Tron-like diagram from Dolby showing a Dolby Atmos elite cinema setup. With the right 3D trickery, headphones can (roughly) replicate that. (Image credit: Dolby)

It’s not pie-in-the-sky technology. I already get this kind of head tracking audio with the Dolby Atmos soundtracks on my AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. When I watch a movie on my iPhone 13 with them, they give me head-tracking surround sound, where the center channel comes from my phone, and everything else surrounds my head properly. And that’s amazing – it’s really the feature killer for these headphones for movie buffs.

Why is Dolby Atmos so important to achieving this? Because it’s designed for 3D environments – it’s an object-based format, which means that instead of sound coming from one of five surround “channels”, each sound is an individual mapped element in 3D space, and it will come from the direction it needs to . This makes it ideal for head tracking, as it also requires an understanding of 3D space – the two pairs perfectly.

Most Blu-rays released today and most major streaming services support Dolby Atmos for big movies. So the stage should be set for Dolby Atmos head tracking to knock it out of the park on PSVR 2. And yet…

Sony’s Dolby Atmos blind spot

Currently, support for Sony’s 3D headsets is limited to games only – and even then, only certain games get the full effect. It’s all in Sony’s custom format, and while it’s object-based, just like Dolby Atmos, as it stands there’s no crossover between them.

The PS5 never properly supported Dolby Atmos. Thankfully, Sony has included the ability for the console to pass Dolby Atmos data from a Blu-ray or streaming service directly to your TV or Dolby Atmos soundbar, so if your other device supports it , you can still get the full effect. But it won’t work with the PSVR 2, as the sound will go directly from the PS5 to the headset you’re using.

So, as far as we know – until Sony corrects us – the movie sound offered by the PSVR 2 will be the PS5’s built-in fallback: converting audio to linear PCM. What does it mean? Well, basically it’s high quality sound, but it’s stereo.

This means that even if Sony creates a way to add its own 3D head-tracking audio format to movies (which I have to assume), it will be based on a super basic version of movie sound. This will simulate the 3D element of it – take a two channel stereo and guess what it would look like in 3D.

It will never sound as good as if Sony supported Dolby Atmos and gave us the true 3D offering. Without it, PSVR 2’s cinematic mode will be less IMAX, and more “a projector in some guy’s basement with a white sheet on the wall.”

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