Sound experience

Next-generation music players and hearing aids are likely to benefit from new ultra-realistic headphone surround-sound technology.

The system, under development by researchers at the University of York, measures the shape of a person’s head and ears, then uses that data to finely tune the properties of sounds that are broadcast to him.

Project leader Tony Tew explained that ear and head shape are the dominant factors affecting the behaviour of soundwaves entering the ear, and are used by the brain to interpret directional information. By calculating precisely how these features alter sounds before they reach the eardrum, it is possible to tailor individual surround-sound systems to a specific individual.

The data collected from an individual could be stored on a smart card device that, once plugged into a suitably equipped audio system, would change the audio dynamics of the system in accordance with the specific acoustic model found on the smart card.

Tew added that the technology – which is about three years away – represents a low-cost alternative to high-budget, time-consuming techniques currently used by the military. These systems, which rely on anechoic chambers, sound booms and loudspeakers, are accurate but can take hours to provide results. The York technique could provide equally accurate results in just a few minutes, he claimed.

Tew believes the technology will make its first appearance in some kind of auditory display. The idea would be to generate warning sounds that appear to be coming from specific direction such that they have an intrinsic meaning.

‘An example of this would be cockpit communication technology on a warplane, where the system could, for instance, be used to clearly convey the location of a missile.’ However, Tew said that he is far more interested in making the technology available in consumer appliances.

He said the technology would be tremendously attractive to the computer gaming industry, providing even greater levels of realism, and could also be used in next-generation hearing aids. Music lovers could also benefit as the system represents a step nearer sound reproduction that is indistinguishable from a live experience.

York University (UK)