Inside Dolby's new San Francisco headquarters, where mad scientists make movie magic
Matt WeinbergerOct 1, 2015, 02.24 AM
If you're an audiophile, you probably recognize the name Dolby Laboratories - the same Dolby that provides the cinematic sound and screen systems at movie theaters all over the world.
This week, Dolby Laboratories opened up its new San Francisco office, where over 750 employees will design, build, and test the next generation of movie magic in more than 100 working audiovisual science laboratories.
The new headquarters, encompassing 63,000 square feet of space, was designed from the ground up to celebrate Dolby's 50-year history of combining science with design.
I was invited to take a grand tour of the new Dolby offices. Take a look and judge for yourself if it meets that goal.
Dolby is imagining this new office as a "vertical village," meaning that it incorporates everything its employees might need, from a recording studio to mock living rooms to test sound. There's even a fitness center and a yoga room.
The first thing you see as you enter is the first of 36 art pieces on display throughout the building. This is the "Ribbon Wall," a 60-foot-long video wall that shows a continually-changing landscape that shifts based on the composition that's playing on the powerful speakers hidden in the ceiling. It has a nice, deep, soothing hum.
Dolby had two "Star Wars" droids to greet us at the door. Apparently, they were built as a hobby by a Dolby employee in Burbank, but they were brought up to San Francisco for the occasion of the grand opening.
When you run into a celebrity, a selfie is just standard protocol.
This is the "Hill," a combination amphitheater/aggressively strenuous staircase that connects the first floor to the second, and can also be used for company presentations.
On the other side of the Hill is a temporary wall, plastered with a large-scale replica of one of Dolby's other art pieces. Past that wall, Dolby is constructing its next-generation Dolby Cinema, a top-of-the-line theater that the company insists provides the absolute best movie experience possible.
They even have a scale model showing off what it's going to look like.
Past the elevator bank is the extremely dark and scary-looking Sensory Immersion Lab. Dolby head scientist Poppy Crum says that state-of-the-art sound diffusion techniques let this room simulate the audio of any locale in the world, from a cave to a concert hall. Crum says she often plays her violin in here while it's in "Carnegie Hall" mode.
After that, we head upstairs in an elevator. Because the floors look so similar as you exit the elevator, each level has a different color scheme. The colors go in a gradient from magenta, pictured here, to a deep blue on the top floor.
Touchscreens in each elevator lobby help employees find their way around the massive building.
Dolby says it wants to encourage communication between employees, so it sprinkles common areas like this across the office.
The offices themselves are pretty open, but otherwise look like your normal open floor plan workplace. You can see on the corner another of those art pieces, this one by British artist Rob Lowe (not that one).
Continuing the theme of openness, most of Dolby's meeting rooms don't actually have doors. Some of them literally can't even be booked, either. You just have to show up and hope nobody's taken them. The idea is to make them good for impromptu huddles.
The design lab is a little different. Dolby purposely made this area's centerpiece look like a family dining table, because it says that research has proven that it subconsciously makes people more open and willing to have conversations.
The floors are connected by a series of more open stairwells, to make it feel less like a skyscraper and more like a campus. Art pieces are everywhere: You can see one at the top of the stairs, and one at the bottom.
The one at the top, Moment, was developed by New York's Studio Studio. It uses over 40,000 LEDs, mounted in plastic shells that look like a sound equalizer, and hooked up to four tiny Raspberry Pi computers, to make light patterns that mimic your movement.
The piece at the bottom, "Oscillocopes" by New Orleans-based Taylor Lee Shepherd, turns old TVs into oscilloscopes that actually change the pattern based on the sound you make while walking by.
Then it was off to the Dolby Broadcast Lab, which studies how sound behaves when it's sent over the television or radio airwaves.
All of Dolby's labs are connected by intimidating-looking server rooms like this one, which lets the company's scientists shunt content like TV shows and movies over to each other over the network seamlessly.
Many floors also sport a reference library, with rare and hard-to-find books on engineering and design. Dolby actually employs a staff of librarians to curate this collection.
It also collects artifacts from the company's history including awards won by Dolby in the fifties, as pictured here.
Indeed, Dolby's history is all over the building. This art piece takes a famous quote from Dolby founder Ray Dolby and gives it some visual kick.
Even the elevator lobby on every floor contains a fun fact about the company's history, meant to spark conversation between Dolby employees.
This sculpture, called "Ears," was made by Atlanta-based sculptor Nikki Starz, honoring those Dolby engineers with so-called "golden ears" of hearing power beyond those of ordinary men.
Starz sculpted over 600 ears for this piece out of plastic. And no, that ear wasn't based on her own. But Dolby is keeping this ear's original owner a secret.
Dolby also loves the movie "This Is Spinal Tap," apparently: This piece, the Dial Wall by Oakland-based collective Because We Can, uses a bunch of authentic stereo dials for an interactive art installation. Some of the dials even work, and you can use them to move the lights you see at the bottom of the wall.
And, of course, one dial goes to 11.
If that wasn't enough Spinal Tap, another one of the company's pieces honors a famous mispronunciation of their name from the movie: "You don't do heavy metal in Dobly." Apparently, not all employees get the joke and some have written to management about the misspelling.
There are all kinds of other musical and movie easter eggs hidden around the building. This piece, "Oblique Strategies," was created in 1975 by legendary record producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt. Each of the black cards has an aphorism on it designed to help break through creative dry spells.
The bathroom hallways, similarly, are adorned with quotes from industry legends like "Lord Of The Rings" director Peter Jackson. The quotes are purposely small, Dolby says, so as to encourage a personal interaction with the words. I would have gotten closer to see what it said, but a Dolby employee was on the way in, so I stepped aside.
It's also worth noting that from the top floor, the views from Dolby's hallways, meeting rooms, and terraces, are like a stunning San Francisco postcard. It would be hard to stay focused on a clear day like this one.
But back to the science. It's worth noting that all of Dolby's labs have some seriously thick, heavy, padded doors to keep any sound from getting in or out.
This is the Storm Lab, named for departed Dolby engineering legend Alex Storm. Here, a 360-degree array of microphones from every direction (including up and down) helps the company understand how sound works in headphones and speakers.
But Dolby saved the best for last: This is the scarily-named "Biophysical Lab," where Dolby scientists study how sound and video actually affects the human body. Brainwave sensors on this subject's head track his mental activity, while a camera tracks the dilation of his pupil, and a skin sensor tracks how clammy his skin is getting. The screen here, while not up to Dolby's top quality, is still worlds better than most commercial TVs, Crum says.