Technology: 3D Audio

By Simon Buddle, HiddenWires. Our tech world is ever evolving - there is a constant need to learn new technologies - to be the first to install and own the next big thing. The queues outside gaming shops or Apple stores are testament to this. So it was with much interest that I rocked up to one of the first demonstrations of 3D sound to be held in the UK at the headquarters of Genesis Technologies. [caption id="attachment_5293" align="aligncenter" width="600"] 3D audio is designed to make the movie experience even more immersive (image courtesy of Auro Technologies).[/caption] The Auro-3D audio demonstration was in almost equal measure fabulously immersive and strangely confusing. I have heard a similar demonstration at Pulse Marketing with the same results. Dolby also has a contender on the market with Dolby Atmos, a system that is backed by directors such as Peter Jackson, although as I understand it, this is only designed for commercial cinema spaces. Is it just the latest gimmick or will it catch on? You will have to judge for yourselves on that one. What it does offer is a new revenue stream. There is no doubt that the sound of a plane emanating from above your head does add to the immersive film experience. Similarly, in the Auro 3D demo, a very simple woodland filmed with birds, insects and the wind gently rustling the leaves on the trees was absolutely beguiling. Why was it confusing? Well I think this was largely down to the recording techniques on many of the Hollywood blockbuster movies where, and to quote a famous old rock saying from Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, the sound engineers were asking, "Could we have everything louder than everything else?" They are learning about this technology just the same as we are. It will take time for the engineers to understand how best to apply the technology, just as it did 3D pictures. The technology is already being used in films such as the new Spiderman movie which is currently on at the IMAX in London. Many new games are being encoded with the new format. Indeed the BBC is investing serious R&D time in to 3D sound. [caption id="attachment_5290" align="aligncenter" width="600"] The new Spiderman movie offers 3D audio in IMAX theatres.[/caption] The Hardware Simply put, 3D audio depends on three layers of speakers: the traditional ear-height surround speakers (now known as the 'lower layer'), a 'height layer' at approximately 40 degrees above the listener and finally a 'top layer' at 90 degrees to the listener. New codecs provide both encoding and decoding for the new format, and these are capable of up-mixing non 3D sound. The DataSat RS20i processor for example, was used in the Auro-3D demonstration, and this offers backwards compatibility with existing 5.1 and stereo setups. [caption id="attachment_5292" align="aligncenter" width="602"] Speaker positioning for 3D audio effect.[/caption] 3D Audio at Home 3D sound will certainly represent an opportunity in terms of room and system design. As with most opportunities, it comes with its own challenges, and getting perhaps 24 speakers or so past an interior designer will, I suspect, be no mean feat in itself. [caption id="attachment_5291" align="aligncenter" width="600"] How will the increased number of speakers required for 3D audio sit with the interior design?[/caption] Given the complexity of the speaker arrays it is worth asking whether we should take on the entire room design. Room acoustics are one of the most critical elements to cinema design. If you are able to supply the projector, screen, speakers, subwoofers and the like, then surely it's a great opportunity to take control of the room itself. Builders and designers alike will appreciate someone with both technical and aesthetic abilities. There are companies that offer cinema design including the supply of acoustic wall panels; two were mentioned right at the beginning of this article (Ed: see our feature article too). Seats, lighting, popcorn machines, movie posters, whatever the look and feel of the room, it makes sense to get the acoustics and lighting treatment right when someone is spending lots of money on their home cinema. For custom installers, this latest evolution in sound technology may be the opportunity that enables us to take that step into a fully-featured cinema design. At the other end of the market, we're beginning to see 3D soundbars, speakers double-mounted in a single column to provide the height speakers, as well as cars and mobile devices that are adopting 3D sound. Conclusion Hearing 3D audio for the first time was certainly a new and fascinating experience. There are improvements needed, as with all new technology, of course, but it does represent a real step forward. I hope that 3D audio will become part of the home cinema. The potential for a completely immersive experience is huge, and given that most people want to feel as if they are in the middle of the action, I can't think of anything in the last twenty years that has taken such a huge step forward for that cause. The true test will be acceptance and adoption in the market place. Keep your ears open! Simon Buddle is a systems integration consultant and installer. Simon is also a regular contributor to HiddenWires magazine and KNXtoday magazine, and the first winner of the CEDIA Region 1 Special Recognition Award. You are welcome to comment on this article. See below.

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