Turning research into commercial success

Photo credit: John Tyrell
Photo credit: John Tyrell

René Rodigast is tasked with partnering with businesses to translate research carried out at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) into commercially viable products and systems. He speaks to Anna Mitchell.

The world of research and the real world sometimes don’t quite match up. What works in the lab, doesn’t necessarily work in the field. Then there are other challenges: prohibitively high cost of scaling up, lack of demand or understanding of a new technology and competition from incumbent products, to name a few. 

That’s why René Rodigast - business manager of Acoustics at Fraunhofer IDMT’s Professional Audio group [pictured above and below] – has his work cut out. 

"Customers are still focused on hardware. They'll pay a lot of money for a loudspeaker but not software." 
- René Rodigast, Fraunhofer IDMT

Fraunhofer IDMT is a scientist’s dream; a network of labs, studios and offices dedicated to research and testing. Meanwhile Rodigast is tasked with liaising with commercial businesses to make sure the breakthroughs, achievements and accomplishments that happen there translate into technologies that can be applied, with commercial benefit, in the outside world. 

An engineer and a musician, Rodigast has worked in theatres, broadcast, live events and fixed installation before joining Fraunhofer as a researcher in 2002. 

The roles were diverse but in each one, Rodigast was able to combine his passions of engineering, electronics and music. 

While the drum track on Cindi Lauper’s Time After Time was an inspiration to start drumming (an instrument quickly followed by guitar, bass, Bluesharp and more), Rodigast says ultimately he’s driven by an interest in high quality audio. 

Photo credit: John TyrellAt the age of 14 he was constructing his own amplifiers and testing back channels to connect more than two speakers as well as a microphone to his home amplifier. Since Rodigast joined Fraunhofer IDMT the institute has racked up some major milestones. He cites the Bregenz Festival, held in Austria in 2005, as a big moment in his career.

Fraunhofer IDMT worked with festival organisers, Lawo and Kling & Freitag to develop a new sound concept for the floating lake stage which picked up widespread acclaim and awards.

“I worked with the team from Bregenz festival on tests, calculations and simulations to see if it was possible to bring wave field synthesis (WFS) to Bregenz festival and also to develop the sound for directional mixing,” he notes.

“That’s been replicated in other live events and we’ve worked with the Zurich Opera House and staged live concerts at the planetarium in Jena.”

In 2003, he was also involved with the installation of the very first commercial WFS system in a cinema when the team successfully integrated the system in a venue in Fraunhofer IDMT’s home town of Illmenau, Germany.

“It’s good to see the quality from our rooms go outside, and the quality outside is comparable with the quality inside,” he says.

“This is an important part of our work, we calculate and optimise the software in our institute and then maybe we equip a big arena like Bregenz, or maybe a theatre with, for example, 80 speaker channels. “Often you have the first moment when you switch on the system and it plays the first sound and you think ‘hey it’s cool, I’ve done no measurements and from the first moment it works’. It’s good to see how strong the algorithm and the software are.

"The requirements have to come from the market and when the market says it needs something, the industry will move."
- René Rodigast, Fraunhofer IDMT
“I came from a very practical background and then I met software engineers,” Rodigast notes. “At first we’d have a lot of discussion about algorithms and how they would work in practice. But I am a practical man and the first thing I normally do is try something. The software engineers say ‘don’t try, we are not finished’. It was interesting in the beginning to compare theory and practice.”

On the topic of software, Rodigast notes how important it is now in technology development. But the industry still hasn’t really worked out how to monetise that.

“Customers are still focused on hardware", he explains. “They’ll pay a lot of money for a loudspeaker but not software. Software is the strongest part of the audio system. With good software you can change the parameters of a bad loudspeaker to a good loudspeaker. “[One way to monetise software] is to include software in hardware-based systems. A lot of companies are working on embedded software which makes it easier for the customers to justify investment.” But Rodigast argues that ultimately this mind-set has to change and software will need to become more valued.

However, audio and acoustics is not an industry known for rapid changes. Evolution not revolution is an often-used phrase particularly in regards to loudspeaker advances and, given that the first commercial WFS system was installed in 2003, is there much hope of any quick developments in this space? “The requirements have to come from the market and when the market says it needs something, the industry will move,” answers Rodigast. “I think we are now on the brink of this happening because there are some standards in this area and object based thinking is now included in those standards.”

Looking to the future, Rodigast is excited about new markets, new technologies and new developments. The residential market is a possibility (but generally can’t command high prices), automotive is already on the cards and entertainment is growing. He also sees a lot more work that can be done with object-based audio and linking that to video objects. The technologies might be changing but what’s driving Rodigast is still that passion for high quality audio and engineering that saw him taking apart the family’s HiFi equipment when he was just 14 years old.