Auralisation meets visualisation

Something exciting has been brewing in Glasgow. A perfect storm born at the leading edges of the fields of acoustics and visualisation technologies. A joint venture between Arup Acoustics and the Glasgow School of Art's Digital Design Studio. Chris Fitzsimmons met up with them both and learned a couple of new words.

Sitting down with Mark Milne and Sébastien Jouan it's clear that they are men with a plan. But when they started using words like Ambisonics and Auralisation I had to hear more. I started out by asking exactly who they are and what they are up to.

Jouan is an Associate with Arup, and leads the companies acoustic division in Scotland. He's also the front man for a project known as SoundLab in Europe.

“SoundLab is the result of an acousticians dream basically,” he explains. We are able to demonstrate how a design would sound in reality before anything is built. So it allows us to show the client what they are going to get, and allows the client to make informed decisions on options for a design, for example, but also helps the design team, and in particular the architect to appreciate the consequences of his architectural decisions, but also the choice of material, or the thickness of walls, because we can do auralisation of sound insulation.

“We can also auralise large public spaces and auralise what the public address / voice alarm system will sound like, depending on the type of speakers used and their locations, and we can demonstrate the intelligibility you would get from the system.”

Mark Milne is Commercial Manager with DDS, the Digital Design Studio, which is part of the Glasgow School of Art. How do they fit in?

“I guess where there is a natural kind of synergy between the two organisations in the fact that we bring an awful lot of skills on the 3D visualisation side. That's one aspect of the things that we do, and we're quite advanced in that area. Photorealistic, accurate 3D models, based on laser scanning of actual buildings are a very interesting thing, and when you start to bring that in with the auralisation side, and in fact you can use the laser scanning as part of the 3D model creation process for acoustics, which gives you the opportunity to both visualise and auralise a space before you've committed to much more than design ideas.

“We also had an interest in 3D spacialised sound, which these guys [Arup] were obviously much more advanced in than we were. But our interest extends into things like gesture technologies, and touch and haptics and then you get into the realms of immersive environments and using smell. We now are starting to think well, we can do auralisation and visualisation, but where else can you go with this?”

On the face of it, the partnership appears as though Arup provides the audio element, DDS provides the visualisation and off they go, but it's actually much more complex than that. The level of detail provided by DDS's laser scans of buildings, down to the surface texture of the materials in question (with a resolution of 0.4mm) means that the 3D models actually inform the acoustic models because they are so detailed.

“Because of the academic background that DDS is able to offer, the joint venture intends eventually to explore all of the senses. Not just sound and vision,” added Jouan.

“One of the things we haven't mentioned anywhere yet is that Mark and I are part of a cluster of academics from Universities around the UK, which explores the synergy of the different senses, with the view to creating something akin to a virtual cocoon. This would be a portable device, with augmented reality, based on OLED, binaural sound, smell etc.

“Even though we are part of this cluster, we are developing our own system as well. It's the next generation of SoundLab basically. You can have 360 degree projection, 3D sound, using exactly the same techniques as SoundLab, and because it's a tight volume, you can play with smell and heat as well. This has some interesting prospects in terms of demonstrating to a client what his space will look like, and feel like.

In July of this year, the joint venture will be officially announced to coincide with the opening of the Hub - a new digital media facility in Glasgow, of which about 20% is dedicated to DDS and a new SoundLab.

“We are building a state of the art facility. It will be a proper space – box in box insulation. We want to demonstrate background noise, and if you have a ventilation system producing 35 dB that's not acceptable”, says Jouan.

“The new venture is really about bringing the worlds of auralisation and visualisation together” adds Milne. “What we're looking to do is explore, through the PhD programme, ways to create models that are highly compelling.” The project already has a dedicated PhD student researching ways to bring the two disciplines closer together.

Aside from the modelling of current or future buildings and spaces, there is also interest from some quarters on an archaeological basis – just how did that venue sound in 1760? Another possible application is the creation of virtual venues online. The idea here is to not only allow the customer to choose their seat in the theatre, but also to get an idea of what the view will be like from it, and what the sound might be like. “Of course,” adds Jouan, “we can't control what is on the other end of the computer connection in terms of sound equipment.”

The two could, and did, talk at great lengths about where their collaboration could lead in the future. Interfacing via gesture technologies or haptics are all possible, even the ubiquitous Wii-mote is discussed. Whatever the outcome, this is one project to be watched with interest as it develops.

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