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Catching Fire with Dolby's Poppy Crum

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire won't spread to theaters till November 22, 2013 but Katniss's next post-apocalyptic exploits can be glimpsed in a teaser trailer.

Even the blazing logo has fans whipped up. 

Fiery content is also consuming neuroscientists like Dr. Poppy Crum, a Senior Scientist at Dolby Laboratories. Though perhaps best known for its audio products, the company is developing imaging tools to represent fire, among other immersive experiences that can ignite moviegoers' senses across sight, sound and emotion. 

"To create believable realities and provoke visceral responses, you need to start with how the human brain interprets reality," Crum told a crowd recently gathered at Dolby's New York office. She and her team pay attention to how neurons integrate information "to form a holistic experience of what it means to be an object." In particular, they focus on brain cells that care about multiple-sensory input from what's being seen, heard and felt.

2PoppyCrumRecently Crum had a curious experience in the Dolby lab. She was watching a large image of fire when suddenly she felt flushed. At first she suspected that the monitor was giving off heat as the imaging technology produced up to 10,000 – 20,000 candelas per square meter, comparable to natural sunlight. (A typical HDTV display produces between 300 - 500 candelas per square meter.) But a test quickly established that the display was the same temperature as ever.

So the Dolby scientists ran a little experiment. Armed with a thermal imaging camera, they had subjects watch content of someone ringing fire around them, and tracked changes on their faces along with temperature fluctuations in their bodies. What the data revealed is that the subjects were expelling heat in response to changes in the content.3Dolbyslide heat

"When we see flame, our bodies are already starting to expel heat and prepare us before we even experience that flame," explained Crum. Apparently, it suffices that the luminescence reaches our retina and that our brain cells cry "fire!" for the body to turn down the thermostat.

As Crum pointed out, the technology "is creating an illusion that’s realistic enough to cause the body to trigger a physiological response." This ability to trick Mother Nature is Dolby’s reward for having sunk serious time and treasure into modeling perceptual reality, a reward that academic research alone hasn't turned up.

And the company has its eyes on bigger prizes yet. Not content to recreate human perceptual reality, it’s looking to improve on it. That’s why Dolby scientists are spending lots of time these days with bats. They’re hoping to harness the brain mechanisms through which bats and other species achieve an array of dazzling feats, and to deliver entertainment experiences that aren’t confined to the faculties of the human animal.

By goosing the “synergistic effects” of our mingled senses, tech toys can rev our sensory experiences beyond the response of our component parts -- and give audiences superpowers and the emotional highs that come with them.

Let the games begin…

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