Content and the coming 3D audio revolution
3D audio has been one of the hottest trends in the audio industry this year, as was evident from the volume of interest it garnered at CES 2019, the world’s largest consumer electronics tradeshow. Even the rare every-day consumer who hasn’t heard of the trend, has certainly heard 3D audio − it is after all how we as humans experience the world.
And while it seems to be a relatively recent development, the truth is that 3D audio has been around for decades − from binaural recordings to the surround sound systems at home or in movie theatres. The reason why spatial audio did not catch on in its early days may be found in the technical restrictions encountered with binaural recordings.
While the head-worn microphones or dummy heads used for this purpose were excellent at recording the soundscape around them, it was technically not yet possible to mix in spot microphones, which meant that the technology focused on environment capture as music with its many spot microphones was difficult.
So, what’s changed? Today, we have all the tools required for breath-taking immersive audio recordings and mixing, and with the advance of Virtual Reality (VR) a few years ago, 3D audio became, for the first time, a must-have for an application. This revolution greatly increased the exposure of immersive audio to the professionals who create content and to the end users who enjoy it and drive the market towards maturity.
Where the Market Stands
Today At present, the pervasiveness of immersive audio continues to be primarily driven by the need to keep up with higher resolution and 360 visuals for movies. Whether in theatres or at home, the aim is to place viewers in the ‘middle of the action’ with a central listening perspective. In fact, in such applications, 3D audio becomes essential as without it, the experience and the artistic intention will break.
Thanks to the introduction of affordable, standalone VR goggles, the appeal to mainstream consumers will continue to grow. And with this, so too will the need for developing workflows for live VR broadcasts, making it possible to bring the thrill of realistic and ‘best seat in the venue’ experiences to countless fans of concerts and sporting events.
Finding Success Where Others Failed
While there has been plenty of buzz around 3D audio, it is important to address an obvious concern; why should we expect 3D audio to become a household technology, when its visual counterparts – whether in the form of 3D TVs or ambitious 3D smartphones (think, LG Optimus 3D) – have failed?
The answer here lies in the fact that 3D TVs which were heavily marketed and pushed by manufacturers actually have nothing to do with 3D. They provide depth but not immersion. With immersive media, however, it is content creators who are the ones driving this shift – not technology providers. In fact, in a reversal of roles, the pressure is on manufacturers to be ready with the tools content creators need as they define new ways of telling stories and crafting their sounds.
The applications and experiences that leverage immersive audio need to add an obvious and durable value, rather than being a gimmick. This means that for the 3D audio market to reach its true potential, effort must be invested in educating videographers, app developers and content creators – the artistic, creative people – on the importance of capturing quality audio and how immersive sound can do so much more in delivering engaging content and bringing a story to life.
In parallel, it is essential to expose consumers to compelling immersive audio experiences. That’s what Sennheiser is contributing to in “The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains”. In this large-scale touring exhibition, visitors can experience a 3D remix of “Comfortably Numb” played back via a dome of loudspeakers, enveloping them entirely.
Obviously, such experiences need to eventually arrive at the home of end users and this too is happening sooner than customers might imagine. A revolution in personal audio is coming with sound bars that incorporate the latest Atmos and MPEG-H standards.
While Sennheiser has been a pioneer bringing such a product to market, there is no doubt that other manufacturers will follow suit and once MPEG-H and the resulting 3D audio platforms reach maturity, speaker performance won’t matter nearly as much as the personalisation options they offer.
The Way Forward
As content is essential to entice consumers to this new standard for audio quality, it is important that the first immersive audio customers be professional audio engineers and creators. Manufacturers are eager to listen to their needs and deliver the tools they will use to create compelling content.
This is a formula that has been previously followed to success by the audio industry. Think about the transition from mono to stereo: it wasn’t average consumers who asked for this. Instead it was the economic interest of the record labels, the creativity of content producers and the ability of manufacturers to deliver the tools they needed that started this revolution in audio.
Once consumers become familiar with the initial set of applications, they will realise that the true potential of 3D audio lies in interactivity and self-augmentation. Immersive audio products must therefore be positioned to empower listeners to shape and experience new perspectives and realities of sound. This too is already under way.
For one, new audio broadcast standards such as MPEG-H and Atmos provide people at home with control over the perspective from which they watch their content, driving the need for new audio technologies to capture and to render audio for these “interaction-ready” formats.
At the same time, the emerging Augmented Reality (AR) platforms promise to ease our lives or entertain us on a much broader scale than VR. This is giving 3D audio technologies a position of choice to orient our attention within an unlimited “field of hearing”, or to listen to the world selectively and augment useful outside sounds in ways that haven’t been possible before.
There is no doubt that immersive audio will be the next leap up in audio for consumers. And once they get their first experience, they won’t settle for anything less.
Dr Véronique Larcher is responsible for AMBEO Immersive Audio at Sennheiser.
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