It is now more than a decade since Auro Technologies founder Wilfried van Baelen first introduced the concept of Auro 3D to the industry. In the intervening years, the company has established itself as an important player in the 3D audio market, challenging Dolby Atmos and DTS:X for dominance of the immersive sound market.
Connected Lifestyle editor Ben McCabe sat down with van Baelen to talk about the development of Auro-3D, the company’s partnership with Sony Pictures, and his predictions on how immersive sound will evolve in the future.
3D audio is still a relatively new technology when it comes to the residential sector, although more and more people are becoming aware of the possibilities. Where do you think we’re at when it comes to the 3D audio market?
If you see it as a really big step in history, I think we’re just in the beginning phase. I realised about ten years ago that we were missing a third dimension: height. That was, in fact, my inspiration to come up with an end-to-end technology, to bring it to the market in such a way that we can integrate it without the need of new formats, bandwidths and without any loss of quality.
It took me some time to have the technical solution – and the moment I launched it (at the end of 2010) in October at Spatial Audio Conference by the AES, I called it ‘immersive sound’ because there was so much confusion about 3D audio. Many people thought that they had already had 3D audio for years with 5.1 or 7.1 [surround sound] – these were marketed as 3D sound formats. So I called this immersive sound and that became the new generic term.
After140 years of the evolution of sound, we finally have sound in 3D, we can integrate it and, of course, what you see now is a learning curve for the whole industry. This is just the beginning of a lot of learning for all of us.
Auro 3D took a long time from concept to development. How did the format come about and what were the challenges?
I had produced more than twenty platinum albums, mixed more than twenty films, received awards from all over the place – so I was very confident with my knowledge about sound. So I was so confused when this Auro3D thing became such a learning journey for me. It took me a few years to understand what it was all about and to have scientific answers on why there such a coherent sound field in the vertical axis.
It’s so critical. What does it do with us? Why do we have more emotional effect with certain speaker layouts and yet with another, the opposite? The fact was that I was hearing this and experiencing this – and I was not just alone. I tested it as well with other people around me and they felt the same – that became for me, wow, why is this?
I went to people who were more informed about neuroscience to understand how we hear. So all this knowledge is pretty new to us – if you see it in the evolution of time; I’m not even talking about human evolution (chuckles), because then it will be a millisecond in the last 24 hours [following the metaphor where the history of Earth is measured by a 24-hour clock]. The point is that, in the 140 years of sound evolution, this is just the beginning point. This is the way I saw it as well when I launched this five years ago.
I’m happy to see that this whole wave that I created was being picked up by important people in the industry, people who can really make the change: George Lucas picked it up first, then he said, ‘wow, this is a game-changer’. Important people who can influence the market immediately saw this and I think that was the beginning of this immersive sound wave being created.
Why did Auro elect for a channel-based over an object-based approach with 3D audio?
A lot of people now think – and this is one of the misconceptions – that you need object-based technology to create a three-dimensional sound. That’s what our competitors may believe as well, but that’s absolutely not true. I see a lot of people starting to think now as well that object-based isn’t natural either. It’s just a mono-sound without all the 3D reflections – very artificial, it’s more like an effect.
When I presented Auro 9.1 and Auro 10.1 for the first time at the 2006 AES convention, I said ‘the closer to a lifelike sound, the more immersive the impact is’. That it is, in fact, still about sound, but also about visuals. The closer we can come to a lifelike experience in the reproduction of it, the more immersive the impact is.
When it’s [used as] a video format, we have a virtual stereo field on screen, and I think that’s a big differentiator. Everybody is talking about positioning and sound and I think that’s a little bit exaggerated. I think it was [composer] Curtis Roads who said at a certain moment, if you want a sound to come from a particular place, put a speaker there.
It sounds funny but, in the typical axis, one of the things that a lot of people don’t understand – they think that you can vertically play phantom sources like you can within the horizontal axis. A lot of people don’t realise that, if you put the speakers over their head then that angle is too big and you cannot position sounds in between.
I’ve seen other ideas like 22.2 and vertical angles from 45° and, for different reasons, I feel that you do not need to go so high. Most important sounds and the sources and its reflections come from a vertical stereo field from our ear level up to a 30° angle, so that’s 70 – 80% of the sound energy coming from the screen channels.
If you can make the sound from a screen much more transparent, [you have] more place for dialogue and more coherent audio as well with the objects that you see and the movement on the screen – that’s one of our priorities, at least.
So how does 3D audio enhance the effect on the user and make it ‘more immersive’?
I think that’s a technical challenge, but it’s also an artistic challenge: it’s from both sides. At this moment, the technical capabilities are coming into place and want to be integrated, but we’re now seeing the new creative possibilities of sound with the height layer all around us.
I see immersive sound as probably the most powerful tool in storytelling. In music and film I think, since we went digital, even what I’ve seen so far from pictures doesn’t even come close to what sound can do. Everything about film and movies and music, it’s all about a story being told. I think that is an underestimated tool at this moment.
The first people [picking] it up, they feel immediately what they can do with it because they have an idea about sound, but a lot of people still have to go to this learning curve, as it’s not just the addition of a few speakers – it’s really the additional of a missing dimension.
Morten Lindberg [from record label 2L] is now a 29 times Grammy-nominee for Best Surround Recording – he’s a master. And he said immediately that the difference between stereo and 5.1 is smaller than between 5.1 and Auro 9.1. He said that, because suddenly it all sounds so much natural, you’re so much more involved so the emotional difference is huge.
I believe it tricks our brain in a different way. Our brain is very smart at understanding the spatial environment. Our hearing system is so sensitive for all these little details so with the speaker layout from Auro 3D, it gives you more. Of course it’s an illusion, but it creates [it] in a pretty good way so that your brain starts to believe [in the authenticity of the audio].
Will the proliferation of headphones and VR headsets supporting 3D audio help the technology gain cultural acceptance?
I’ve recently been giving lectures on immersive sound in VR – I was in Shanghai for a lecture last week and three weeks ago I was in MITCOM (MIT College of Management) – there was someone from a Swiss VR audio company [present]. I said to people that I [have] a very different insight to sound – the majority of the attention goes to the picture – but we all remember the famous sentence from George Lucas: ‘sound is 50% of the movie experience’. She said ‘Oh, I don’t agree. For VR it must be much more – it will be at least 80%’. She said that it’s amazing how good sound can create that difference, especially in VR.
What people don’t realise is that our hearing system is not just our two ears. I often say to people – just scratch with your finger at the back of your head and you hear immediately how loud it sounds. Even in the front of your head above and below your eyes – that hearing is a part of all the information which is coming to our brain together.
That is underestimated – people think okay, we’re putting headphones on, it will be here and you can produce it – that’s absolutely a challenge. [With] this binaural hearing system it’s not easy to compensate the loss of what’s not being picked up, compared to what you get from speakers. And that makes it even easier: the more realistic the picture is, the more you see the discrepancy if the audio is absolutely not there. I think that’s a big challenge; that’s the reason why I see there is still a lot of development potential.
What does the Sony deal mean for Auro?
More and more studios are starting to embrace our format, because many of them start to see as well more the power of it. You have to understand that in the cinema industry every extra audio file means an extra video file, so having the single file distribution that Auro-3D offers [means] you can cover all surround-sound 5.1 at the same time as 3D audio. [It] makes it easy to deliver this without any extra effort, because it’s just like putting the Auro 5.1 file in instead of the normal 5.1.
There are now already 200 movies out worldwide in immersive sound with Auro-3D tracks, and people now want to see this coming to their homes. Now the reason that [this progress] was a little bit slower [than Auro’s rivals], let’s be honest, is due to the power of our competitors. They really wanted to be first, so they have a little bit of advantage there.
Another thing is, of course, is with music; people are seeing that Auro-3D has a lot of advantages in music and I see some people saying, ah, but I like Auro for music and then, let’s go for Dolby Atmos for movies, because we have less movies than Dolby. They have more than maybe 500 movies in the meantime, so they have many more. But even in movies, we have a more natural sound.
But, if a film is mixed in Auro, they start from the beginning to the end: it’s all Auro. It’s not just one or two scenes here and there in Auro and the rest is in 5.1. That’s not the way people mix Auro-3D.
You’ve been doing a lot of work to develop Auro Max, which uses a hybrid of object- and channel-based sources. What does this bring to the table?
I see very often that people say Auro is against object-based technology. No! that’s not at all true – we just try to use it in the way that it is an enhanced experience so you can create something extra with it. You have to understand in which medium you are going to use it and I think, there is a reason why we are working on Auro Max (together with our partner Barco, our partner for the cinematic industry), which is based on open standard, on an open bit stream, an interoperable standard.
With Auro Max, technically we have everything in place. The tools are working; the hardware is ready. In our point of view, it does not really make sense to go as a de facto standard again on the market, so we try to work together with the studios, as I believe it’s in the interest of the studios as well that there is an interoperable standard.
It’s not that we don’t have object-based technology, but we try to use it in the way we believe it should be used. We try to use it in a way where it makes sense, where object-based technology creates that extra thing where it might be needed.
Auro recently received a significant amount of funding (to the tune of $20m). What will this allow the company to achieve?
That money is all being used for the company’s development. We really believe that there is so much to do in expansion and you see, the audio world is very big. [We’re] a small company that’s doing something that – in fact, what we had planned in the beginning is too ambitious already.
With this funding, we can do extra with it and go [out] faster to all markets; it’ll all be used for integration [into] these markets and to try to service our clients better and have more content available. It’s all being done to establish the format even more than we had achieved up until now.
Where do you think 3D audio will go next? Will it ever become a mass-market standard, or do you see it remaining a high-end technology?
I believe that after about ten years there will be two main formats: stereo and Auro 9.1. The reason is that stereo will always be an easy way to channel some things and it does a lot already, because there is some 3D information in it [that] we pick up with our brains acoustically.
As for 5.1 – I see a lot of people who have 5.1 and they’re all motivated to install Auro. I think that option is out – it’ll just be stereo, or immersive sound. Auro 9.1 has the big advantage as the most efficient speaker layout which can create a 3D space and [has] full backwards compatibility [with 5.1].
Of course, if you go to Auro 10.1, that’s with the speaker above you – the voice-of-god – that’s an option as well for certain things, but I believe Auro 9.1 is a very strong format because I say with that voice-of-god channel, you can even have as a phantom source and recreate it if you’re sitting in the sweet spot.
It’ll take a generation, of course; even nowadays in India they still only play stereo in cinemas. It will take two generations before 5.1 is really over and out. But I think in the longer term, stereo and Auro 9.1 are the formats for our homes.