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The next best thing

by Digital Studio Middle East Staff on Jan 1, 2017

Digital disruption – that is a phrase being tossed around quite a bit in the broadcast, production and media domains. As these companies endeavour to stay relevant given the evolving viewership consumption habits, they are constantly on the lookout for technologies they can use to entice audiences back to their platforms – be it TV channels, cinema halls or digital networks.

Some of these technologies are like the proverbial flash in the pan. Others are worthy of being paid closer attention to. Over the years, offering an immersive audio visual experience to viewers is one such trend that has caught the interest of companies. This gradual shift in perception, which began with 3D imagery, immersive audio and now augmented reality, is like a juggernaut that is picking up speed.


Immersive audio especially has the sound industry excited, coming as it does at a time when there is a dearth of significant trends that could improve how content was being delivered to end users. So how would one define it best?

Jon Tatooles, co-founder and chief business development officer of Sound Devices, LLC believed that anytime the audience is fully engaged with the content, without distraction of technology and their surrounding environment, he would consider it immersive. He claimed that the first cinema experiences were truly ‘immersive’ with their live music performances accompanying the moving pictures, where audiences suspended their reality for the duration of the film.

“Today, the industry defines immersive audio as the ability to place the audience within a given acoustical environment through directional audio cues, either with multi-channel playback over loudspeakers or simulated multi-channel playback over headphones,” he stated.

Sripal Mehta, principal architect-broadcast for Dolby Laboratories added that immersive audio gives audiences the sensation that sound is coming from every direction, even overhead, creating a hemisphere of audio that puts viewers in the middle of the action. This effect ensures that the sound of falling raindrops from the sky or a helicopter flying overhead feels more visceral than ever in the cinema, the living room, and even over headphones.

For those with a more technical bent of mind, Larry Schindel, senior applications engineer at Linear Acoustic, explains it more precisely. “Immersive audio includes traditional surround sound elements along with overhead or height channels/elements and is also called 3D audio. One important distinction to keep in mind is that immersive audio is different than object-based audio. With object-based audio, each sound is its own, unique object, and has positional data associated with it. Immersive audio, in this case, can be considered ‘more’ immersive than 5.1 or 7.1,” he explained.


While the 5.1-channel programming was compelling and dynamic, it had some limitations. Firstly, it was two-dimensional; secondly, it was having to mix the audio to fit into fixed channel locations. What this means is that since all the audio is on one horizontal plane, though the sound is excellent, it lacked the real-world acoustics.

Schindel explained that adding sound elements above the listener makes for a stellar sound field. Additionally, having the ability to make each speaker an independent channel in a large room, like a cinema, makes for a far more natural sounding experience. This makes smooth panning around the room possible, instead of just panning from the front left to the side and back walls.

He added that another limitation, which affects broadcasting, is that complete mixes have to be transmitted. “This is not a limitation of 5.1-channel ecosystems themselves, but a limitation in the equipment used as well as traditional thinking of workflows. Consumer receivers did not have the capability to decode multiple streams and mix them together based on the viewer’s preferences. Additionally, broadcasters themselves were, and largely still are, unwilling to let anything except a complete mix leave their facilities in order to prevent viewer complaints,” Schindel pointed out.

However, transmitting complete mixes makes it challenging for broadcasters to deliver 5.1-channel programs in multiple languages or with descriptive services for the visually impaired. Quite often secondary languages are downmixed and transmitted in stereo, or perhaps even mono.

Newer audio systems and equipment will simplify the handling of multiple dialog services; be they different languages, or sporting team announcers, or descriptive services, and provide the viewer with more options and a better overall experience.


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