The next best thing

Vinita Bhatia finds out whether it is the next transformative technology for the audio industry.
3D, Dolby Labs, Film technology, Genelec Oy, Lawo, Nugen, Analysis, Broadcast Business

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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.

WHAT’S THE FUSS ABOUT?

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.

NEED FOR AN UPGRADE

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.

Sreejesh Nair, solutions specialist–audio at Avid added that the other main issue with a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 system has to do with the accurate positioning of sound in the space. Additionally, there is no way to represent height. Hence, to get the audience into the soundscape and to build a more realistic or engaging soundscape, these additional channels of height and objects were created and added to the existing format.

“There were also a number of limitations in the way this sound would be represented in theatres, because the surround speakers are traditionally a set of arrays. In Dolby Atmos, for example, it is possible to address individual speakers on the array to achieve sound that is immersive and at the same time realistic in nature,” Nair pointed out.

Yet another issue was that the traditional speakers were not really full range when it came to the surround set of speakers. This meant that when there was a transition or movement of a sound from the front screen to the surrounds, the level dropped and the tonality changed. This was something that was overcome when immersive audio was introduced to cinema.

A NEW DIMENSION TO ENTERTAINMENT

Film directors like George Lucas believe that soundtrack is at least 50 percent of the movie going experience. For cinematic content, sound effects can be discretely panned above and around the listener. For live content, subtler effects can make audiences feel like they are in the midst of a concert hall or stadium.

Consumers can even experience immersive audio at home with audio or video receivers from vendors such as Denon, Onkyo and Yamaha that support Dolby Atmos. Additionally, Dolby has developed an innovative speaker technology that reflects sound off the ceiling, providing another easy way for consumers to upgrade to immersive audio.

Christian Struck, senior product manager-audio production at Lawo said, “Immersive audio by its close-to-nature auditive experience gives a much more realistic (or even over-realistic) impression, which is more inspiring as such. It draws you into the action, the musical or sports event, and is a real immersive experience – what was started and tried with 5.1 is now to be achieved by immersive audio. And in contrast to 5.1 systems, immersive audio played back on speakers is way more independent from the ‘sweet spot’, enabling larger hearing zones.”

Jon Schorah, audio creative director, NUGEN pointed out that there are two potential additional dimensions that can be added to the home listening experience with the adoption of immersive audio delivery formats. One is obviously the 3D sound experience where a multiple-speaker home cinema set-up can provide a high quality immersive experience. “However, for the majority of us, this type of set up is impractical. Fortunately, there are sophisticated soundbars available in the market today that use a high number of speakers designed to reflect sound around the room. These can achieve a sense of immersive ambience, giving an impression of sound from behind and above, without the need to install a complex multi-speaker array. At the moment, these technologies are very expensive, but the cost will almost certainly come down in time,” Schorah said.

He added that that the second benefit, and perhaps the one which will be most immediately adopted, is the ability to give the home listener access to specific object control within an object-based immersive format. This could allow the consumer to control the level of dialog — for instance, relative to background audio, or perhaps choose a different commentary depending upon which team they support whilst watching a sports game.

Currently, immersive sound is pushing ahead in three areas – cinema theatres, home entertainment and virtual reality (VR). And industry veterans feel that cinemas will see the highest uptake when it comes to adoption of this technology.

Lars-Olof Janflod, press director of Genelec Oy places his bets on cinemas but said that homes are coming through strongly with lower-cost processors. “As there are more homes than cinemas in the world, without doubt homes will see the highest uptake. As for VR, it is still in its infancy but will certainly play a big role in the future,” he said.

Struck felt that immersive audio in cinema theatres has developed to a quasi-standard for audio reproduction. Also, as long as the technical effort within homes requires the installation of a minimum of nine loudspeakers, its acceptance will be low. “An exciting issue is VR, though its practical impact on daily media consumption is yet unclear,” he added.

According to Schindel, currently the greatest uptake for immersive audio is in the cinema market, though immersive audio is beginning to be adopted in home entertainment. This is largely because of Blu-Ray discs that are available with immersive soundtracks and some OTT services that are offering select content containing immersive soundtracks as well. “Some speaker manufacturers are offering up-firing speakers that sit on top of your existing home theatre speakers, which eliminate the need to mount overhead speakers to your ceiling. VR systems are still in the early adopter stage, and I think it’s still too early to tell how popular they will be or how much content will be created for them,” he added.

Nair too felt that theatres are the leading contenders of the trio when it comes to this technology, though with Dolby and other vendors entering the VR space, some surprises could be in store. “The issue currently with home entertainment is being able to set up height speakers, which is not the easiest thing to do. But that being said, there is content available as Dolby Atmos in Blu-Ray as well,” he said.

Schorah emphatically stated that in cinema, immersive audio is already a reality and its adoption will only increase. Many productions are now released in immersive formats (for e.g. Dolby Atmos, Auro 3D and DTS-X), which can be experienced today in an increasing number of theatres around the world. VR is an area of heightened interest, with YouTube already offering some VR formats.

“There is an enormous amount of experimentation happening with VR at the moment, but it’s a little early to see any long-lasting themes establishing themselves. Home listening will perhaps be the last arena to fully embrace immersive audio, as content delivery mechanisms are often on a national or international scale and consumer systems will need to be upgraded before most people will be able to enjoy a truly immersive audio experience at home,” Schorah noted.

As immersive audio is edging closer to a natural hearing experience, broadcasters as well as filmmakers and production houses in India are paying closer attention to it. Broadcasters, especially, have already started investing in better acoustics systems realising that sound can give them an upper edge since popular Indian TV programs are centred around reality shows, music, dance, sports and movies, where sound, especially surround production, plays a key role. In fact, an increasing number of shows are now being produced in 5.1 in order to cater to both the domestic and overseas Indian markets, which are also being viewed on HD and UHD TVs.

Schindel cited the example of the producers of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket series that recently invested in 5.1 surround sound production equipment. “Additionally, several major Indian entertainment shows are now produced in 5.1 surround sound. These include Sony Pictures Network’s flagship comedy, The Kapil Sharma Show, and also The Voice of India. These shows are given a new dimension by the use of 5.1 production and immersive audio production is a natural progression from here,” he said.

Mehta believed that the market at large can immediately enjoy the benefits of immersive audio via headphones for mobile playback. “Immersive audio can provide a dramatic effect over any pair of stereo headphones – whether a consumer is watching content on a tablet at home or on their phone while on-the-go. Additional benefits of object-based audio, like the ability to change dialogue balance, will improve the listening experience for every viewer,” he opined.

While Struck felt that immersive audio presented an enjoyable and exciting experience for anyone in any part of the world, independent from cultural aspects, he struck a cautionary stance. According to him, the snag lay in the basic technical prerequisites and the infrastructure for experiencing immersive audio in every household and he felt that it will take time until we see a practicable solution that gives access to majority of TV viewers and listeners to gain the benefits of immersive audio in their direct environment, at least at home.

Tatooles agreed with Struck and while he was unaware about the dynamics of the Indian market, he stated that if it was anything like the US or Europe, we are a long way away from accurate reproduction of immersive audio in the average home. “It is one thing for it to be an option on a cable or streaming box, and another thing entirely to have a capable playback system, suitable environment, and end user knowledge of how to set it up,” he claimed.

Schindel, however, pointed out that consumers in India are following a global trend of adopting soundbars in their homes to improve their listening experience, which is a positive development. The combination of evolving soundbar technologies and the emergence of more surround programming in Indian broadcasts look to set the scene for a future that is likely to embrace immersive audio.

Though it might be early days, it is good to see that broadcasters and content producers are eager to discover how they can enhance their viewers’ experience with multichannel and immersive audio. Now that they have started down this road, their efforts are bound to create some dramatic acoustic effects for the listening pleasure of their audience.

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