The ears have it

Senior reporter

Three-dimensional audio techniques can create a genuinely immersive experience for cinema-goers, but it remains to be seen how quickly the technology will break through to the mainstream.

Visiting my local cinema last week, I was reminded how important sound is to the experience of watching a film. It’s a somewhat run-down establishment in need of serious renovation (not really what you’d expect from an outpost of a national chain, especially given the ticket prices). Aside from the peeling paint and tired carpet, the audio system was noticeably poor: although there were surround speakers, the sound seemed to be skewed to the left of the theatre, and the volume was often not loud enough to counter the annoying rustling of popcorn bags from my fellow movie-goers.

It was an entirely different experience to the demonstration of Dolby’s new “Atmos” audio system I attended a few months ago. As I detailed this week in my feature on 3D audio, Atmos combines traditional surround sound with overhead speakers and effects that appear to move seamlessly around the room. The results were often impressive, creating a genuinely immersive experience that brought the film off of the screen far more effectively than 3D video effect.

It wasn’t perfect by any means: for one scene featuring camera shots that repeatedly alternated between the character’s face and their point of view, it created an disorienting and distracting effect where the sound bounced back and forth between the front and rear speakers. But these are early days for 3D audio and as it spreads and sound engineers become more experienced it could open up a huge range of creative possibilities.

One question about 3D sound, however, is how quickly it will be able to spread. The popularity of the modern version of 3D visual effects has grown quite rapidly over the past few years to the point where it can be difficult to find certain films shown in 2D at all. The price of 3D-enable TV sets has fallen dramatically to the point where even mid-price models feature the capability as standard.

Commercialising 3D audio won’t necessarily be as straightforward. It’s not as easy or obvious a concept to explain to people. Even though many 3D sound techniques can work with any speaker setup, they still require extra hardware that many cinema managers (not to mention TV-owners) may not want to stump up for. And there are various different techniques to creating 3D audio, all of which use complex algorithms to render the sound, making the creation of standard format more tricky.

It’s hard to know whether competing consumer electronic formats help or hinder the spread of a technology. Did the VHS and Betamax or, more recently, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD competitions give people more choice and greater access to technology? Or did they put people off from making a decision until a monopoly had emerged, for fearing of buying products that could soon become obsolete?

The BBC has been experimenting with numerous different 3D audio techniques for years, but doesn’t appear close to deciding which to focus on. As a result we probably won’t see 3D sound added to broadcasts as standard any time soon. ‘You always need to find a compromise that makes a lot of industrial partners and broadcasters happy so you can imagine that that takes time,’ says the BBC’s head of audio research, Frank Melchior.

‘Sometimes they are just agreed that they want to have something new but other times there are very specific interests in there which makes negotiation quite difficult. But I can say we are pushing for this kind of standard and we want to see an open standard for object-based audio to get these productions.’

Today we are more used to the idea of open-access software that can be used without licence. But when companies like Dolby do push ahead with proprietary technology, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, argues Marco Perry, founder of 3D sound engineering firm Immersive Audio.

‘I believe that how widely accepted the future formats are from the big corporations including Dolby, Warner, Disney etc, is not restrictive or limiting to the rest of us,’ he says. ‘In fact it can only make our own endeavours more widely acceptable as a multi format audio world is reality … It’s only when big fish try to monopolise markets, rigorously expounding the virtues of their own format policies and protocol and trying to enforce them on us all that it becomes a bit boring.’

Of course, it’s likely that big companies will be needed to make the technology in relatively closed industries like cinema and TV enter the mainstream – it’s why 3D audio techniques have been around for decades but not yet broken through. And that’s why Dolby’s Atmos launch is so important.

What remains to be seen is whether a better option will emerge, and whether cinemas and the buying public will endorse any 3D audio concept wholeheartedly. In the meantime, I’ll be ditching my local chain outpost for an independent alternative. They might not always have access to the latest technology, but at least they genuinely care about the audience’s experience.