Verge's Surrounded By Sound: How 3D Audio Hacks Your Brain, A Response


In response to The Verge's article posted February 12th, 2015 "Surrounded by sound: how 3D audio hacks your brain"

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First of all, bravo to Mona Lalwani for tackling this pertinent topic.  Binaural audio is indeed on the cusp of a Renaissance.  However, the rules of engagement are yet to be determined.  For, if we are in fact in a “Renaissance”, we’ve yet to identify our Mona Lisa and David.

I can explain.

Sound has always been an essential component in mankind’s survival tool kit. For instance, try to find the exact location of a plane flying, without having to look up and then look around. Notice how when a a four-legged predator prowls behind you, you know exactly where they are? This is because our primate enemies always attacked from the ground, never from the sky. Our ears evolved to survive. Film, television and the advancement of sound design have transformed audio from an evolutionary harbinger to a consumption and entertainment plaything. Hence the invention of 5.1, 7.1, Surround Sound, Sound Designers, Acoustical Engineers, Studio Architects and on and on…

Of course “binaural is becoming a linchpin in virtual reality development,” in the same way that VR is following in the footsteps of Hollywood and Madison Avenue.  SPOILER ALERT: Yes, marketers and advertisers will be coming to an Oculus Rift near you soon.  Spam hath no fury.

How Vital?

As Adam Somers of Jaunt correctly says, "Binaural audio is critical to an immersive experience within the context of VR. We consider audio to be 50 percent of the immersive experience." Of course, this is a lovely sentiment, but in reality, audio usually accounts for less than 5% of the budget. Why? We’ve all heard many a great story told without visuals (ahem, radio) - I’ve yet to recall a brilliant story told without sound.

Will It Sell?

Bang! The race is on with software developers, coders, and digital agencies rushing to get THEIR algorithms, object orientated mapping and other 3D audio virtual solutions to market. The promise is huge.  The outcome remains manipulated and an experience that is impressive, but doesn’t replicate in its entirety how we hear or tell stories through audio. The wow is in the visual experience – let’s sell that, (the audio will be good enough to pass).

Unsurprisingly, marketers, or as they now like to be called “growth hackers,” have also jumped into the fray. Binaural doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. “Immersive” “3D” “Audio X” “5th Dimension Sound” have all emerged from brainstorming meetings as the new standard to consumerize over 100 years of audio technology.

A record I actually own. It's amazing.

A record I actually own. It's amazing.

Where credit is due.

Not enough credit is given to the preexisting communities around binaural recording, especially the ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). They are the authentic audiophiles. They are inadvertently creating a catalog of real-world audio clips fit for a Martian time capsule.  As an active group of prosumers they build their own rigs, buy expensive audio gear, and open source their creations via YouTube and Soundcloud. Maybe we should listen to their needs first?

In reality, in order to have a Renaissance you need to have capital, tools, a knowledgeable audience, and a purpose. 17th Century Florence had the Medicis, the widespread availability of paper and color pigment, a growing merchant class, and the Vatican with endless subject matter. This enabled the DaVinci’s and Michelangelo’s of the time to rise from obscurity and share their talents.

The audio world has yet to be unchained from audio patents, close sourced algorithms and hardware that is deliberately priced out of market.  Hence its current MO, build it and you/they/it will consume it. What about the ASMR folk who want to make it in their bedrooms, gardens and in the field?

Heather Feather, an incredible ASMRtist and a key representative of the ASMR community. 

Heather Feather, an incredible ASMRtist and a key representative of the ASMR community. 

The audio we currently experience and record is like black and white television.

 True binaural recording is the 4K equivalent. The intermediary steps, the software and algorithms, are like color TV.  When audio is perfect you can feel it. We’re not there yet, but we are close.

The hack phase.

When it comes to 3D sound – we are not yet in the Renaissance. We are in fact in the “hack” phase. This is the moment where the conversations start. People begin to question, search and believe that something else is possible. Without a true market developed, the pioneers take the stage. (FYI Not even smartphone operating systems can receive stereo audio. Just a small oversight.)

The Renaissance I envision.

We’ll know when the Audio Renaissance is here when everyday consumers can acknowledge the difference between a good and a brilliant recording; when the public has the tools at their fingertips to remix a track or field recording from their phone; when the equipment required to record a binaural track costs less than a pair of top shelf sneakers; when we hear something and think, ‘it doesn’t sound like that’. Then and only then will we be in a Renaissance.

And since marketing is going to kill me for using such an antiquated word, why don’t we just call it “Mobile 3D Audio”? 

From One Ear To Another,
Anthony Mattana
Hooke Founder

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