Lose yourself in spatial audio

Spatial audio technology isn’t new, but consumer awareness and adoption are trending up as Apple, Mercedes-Benz and other major brands add it to their products. Tim Kridel asks what that trend means for pro AV.

Sometimes the most memorable AV experiences are the ones that make you forget. That’s one goal of spatial audio, which often is referred to as immersive for the experience that makes you forget everything else and just be in that moment. Spatial audio technology has been around for decades, with a lot of the pioneering work done in places such as the West End and Broadway. “Historically, theatrical sound has kind of led the way,” says Steve Ellison, Meyer Sound spatial sound director. “It was really adventuresome theatrical sound designers that have been bringing immersive audio to live events for quite some time. Theatre sound designers are always thinking about how to make a theatrical performance as captivating as possible.”

More recently, spatial technology has become increasingly common outside of cinema and live theatre, exposing even more consumers to the concept of immersive audio. This trend affects pro AV because consumer experiences — especially in the home — often set expectations for what’s possible and preferable at work, in the classroom and elsewhere.

For example, in October, Apple announced a partnership with Mercedes-Benz to bring Dolby Atmos spatial audio to the S-Class and other models. Apple also is among the music streamers — including Amazon Music and Deezer — that have added spatial audio over the past few years. That’s partly because musicians are increasingly mixing their albums in Atmos, such as Ed Sheeran’s = and Coldplay’s Everyday Life.

“Two large trends are evolving simultaneously,” says Julien Laval, L-Acoustics application project manager and consultant liaison. “The first is at an individual level where consumers are looking to spatial audio to standardise the experience via personal equipment like headphones and computers for entertainment, video calls and soon the metaverse. The second is providing an immersive experience to a large group of people and diverse content in venues, theme parks, etc. The growing synergies between those two trends are driving overall expectations.”

All of these devices, services and experiences are educating consumers about how spatial differs from stereo. “We believe there is an increase in demand for spatial audio,” says Jamie Gosney, Sonosphere creative director. “With Apple and Amazon delivering immersive audio on music streaming platforms, the public becoming more aware of its existence is starting to drive demand in other areas.”

pic above and below; An L-Acoustics L-ISA system delivers immersive soundscapes at the Now Building, part of London's Outernet entertainment destination

At the same time, consumer spatial audio devices and services are also raising the experiential bar that public venues and events must clear. “Immersive is a significant market that’s here to stay,” says Roman Sick, Holoplot CEO. “Live experiences have a continuous need to up their game in order to compete with consumers’ digital alternatives.”

Events come to life
Events are another ear-opening experience. “People have associated immersive events with the visual perspective for many years, but it’s only now they’re starting to recognise the relevance that immersive audio plays in creating the emotional connection,” Gosney says. “We’re seeing a particular trend for spatial audio in immersive art exhibitions. For example, we recently delivered a Dolby Atmos system for Leonardo da Vinci: Genius Immersive Experience in Berlin. Visitors explore Leonardo’s inventions and ideas via state-of-the-art technology, with specially composed music from DJ Sasha which we transformed into a captivating 360-degree soundscape.”

Themed entertainment and visitor attractions are also the prime focus for the company that’s now behind the Iosono technology. “For example we’re involved in digital galleries such as ‘The Lume’ permanent installs by Grande Experience,” says Max Röhrbein, joint managing director at Encircled, which licensed Iosono from Barco in October 2019. “The first and largest of its kind would be Melbourne.

A follow-up was in Philadelphia and the latest addition just opened in Colorado. “We’re also involved in flight motion simulators, such as Flight of Passage in the Avatar World in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, multiple Soarin’ rides in Tokyo and Shanghai Disney Parks and Chinese Sunac Amusement parks.”

Spatial audio also enables different experiences based on where a person is in, for example, an immersive art exhibit. “I believe one of the most desirable qualities of an immersive experience is the need for it to be explorative,” says Holoplot’s Sick. “Our technology lets you create discoverable audio rather than blanket sound. Experiences become tailored and changeable depending on how a visitor moves through an attraction. Sound plays an important role in guiding a visitor's discovery through such a space, directing the gaze to specific objects, underlining certain points in the visual content or setting the mood with background music.”

Virtual concerts are another emerging category. “The technology is allowing new types of live events to emerge, such as ABBA Voyage in ABBA Arena London, where advanced motion design of the main artists is rendered by high-resolution screens,” Laval says. “The digital version of Abbatars is merged with real musicians, merging the limits of the real versus the virtual.

“As another illustrating example, Outernet in London is also an interesting multimedia space where incredibly large high-resolution screens are covering the massive wall and ceiling areas. All of these visual experiences can only be optimised by also delivering sound that goes beyond stereo. I believe the challenge lies in pushing the design experience industry out of the comfort zone, in a smart way. The top manufacturers can only achieve this by designing appropriate product that delivers that the right technology awareness.”

Another potential flight-related use case is air traffic control centres. A year ago, Inavate explored how some airports are migrating their on-site traffic control towers to remotely monitored ones a hundred kilometres away, a trend that creates opportunities for AV firms with expertise in video surveillance and command-and-control (C&C) centres. Spatial audio would give controllers an additional, more natural sense of where a particular aircraft is.

“In the early ’80s, a guy working on flight control centres [told me]: ‘Normally you're looking at this screen, but how good would it be if you could know exactly where it's located [by spatial audio]?’” says Ralf Zuleeg, who handles sales services and application engineering at d&b audiotechnik. “He was really keen to think about stuff like that.”

Although that might seem like a niche use case, it also highlights a much larger, mainstream one. Spatial audio enables air traffic controllers to quickly identify a plane’s location based on where its sound is coming from. It also can help people quickly identify the location of each speaker — and thus that person — in a crowded setting, such as when mics are passed around at trade shows for people to ask questions. Another example is a government parliament building.

“You have 634 delegates and two loudspeakers,” Zuleeg says. “When somebody starts talking, you take at least 20 seconds just to figure out who's speaking. In that 20 seconds, you don't hear a word. So this is for me [an opportunity to improve] spatial intelligibility. Therefore, I believe there is no segment worth not going into.”

Product field grows
Technological advances are also driving interest and adoption. “For years, people have experimented in immersive audio, but technology wasn’t available to accurately produce spatial (object-based) audio,” says Sonosphere’s Gosney. “However, with digital mixing consoles and digital processing generally, the technology has caught up with people’s visions. Companies like Dolby Atmos are working at a very fast pace. Dolby Atmos for music only came out in 2018, but there are an increasing number of Dolby Atmos enabled devices hitting the market that will continue to drive consumer awareness and demand.”

DSPs are another example. “Modern DSP devices address the complexities of placing objects in a 3D space, as opposed to it just coming out of individual loudspeakers,” Gosney says. “It is phase and time alignment from these devices that allows the human brain to believe that an object is in a 3D space, as opposed to coming out a number of loudspeakers. Whilst beam steering has been around for almost 30 years, it’s now being fine-tuned into products that are useable for a wider range
of applications.”

Even so, barriers to adoption remain. “Effective immersive experiences have to be conceived as a whole and not in bits that are added together,” Laval says. “Spatial audio needs to be coherent with the visual intention as well as with other human senses to multiply the magic spark. That is why bringing immersive into the design of experiences requires new ways of working to really grasp the potential disruptive changes brought by the technology. This takes a little time, but it’s already in motion, and we can’t look back.”

Another hurdle is that AV often is an afterthought during construction or a major remodel, such as for a parliamentary building. “Traditionally, and frustratingly, audio is still the last thing to be considered in a project,” Gosney says. “This inevitably brings compromise with it, as audio products tend to have to physically fit in around the visual, rather than being considered at project conception stage, when better choices can be made to achieve good results. Cost is also a barrier, because there isn’t enough understanding of the value that audio in general, but particularly spatial audio, brings to a project. Audio is what creates emotional connection but, because you can’t see it, it’s the most overlooked discipline in the creative process.”

To capitalise on the immersive audio trend, AV pros need to master its nuances. “Immersive audio is a highly specialised field, and bringing in the right people at the beginning of a project is vital,” Gosney says. “As there’s more demand for spatial audio in live venues, it’s important that venues consider installing bespoke systems. Not only will this deliver a far superior result because the system can be properly tuned and aligned to the venue, but it also has the advantage of playing into the green agenda by stopping the need for tonnes of equipment to be transported from venue to venue.”

The good news is that there’s no shortage of products for achieving immersive experiences. “We are using optimised audio beams, which allow us to cover a space with pin-sharp accuracy through our software algorithms to provide a consistent signal across the whole audience area with minimal loss of level, in contrast to the significant level drop of 3dB (line array) or 6dB (point source) common for conventional sound systems,” says Holoplot’s Sick. “This has the profound effect that the ‘sweet spot’ is significantly enlarged, meaning the audio isn’t perceived as coming from a specific loudspeaker position. From that point we can build out and use our immersive toolkit to provide creative opportunities others can’t reach, such as using reflections to create virtual sources or moving audio objects into the audience area.”

Now it’s up to the marketplace to take advantage of those kinds of capabilities. “We’ve been working with spatial audio in live sound systems since the early 90s,” says Meyer Sound’s Ellison. “The marketplace is catching up with our capabilities.”


Abba pix : Johan Persson

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