How the Future Sounds
By Peggy Anne Salz, Tue Mar 08 08:30:00 GMT 2005

As users lose their fascination with imaging and embedded digital cameras, the industry is turning back to the basics of audio for differentiation. While some scramble to combine music players with phones, a clever few are focusing on improving the overall quality of the sound itself. The result is a slew of sound-driven services sure to push the envelope.

When KDDI Corp. launched full-song real music ringtones late last November, and introduced improved sound capability on their handsets to make the most of playback, it was a market-maker move. Not to be outdone, NTT DoCoMo promptly introduced a line of FOMA handsets with stereo speakers and full 3D surround-sound capability. This has, in turn, encouraged games developers and music labels worldwide to create 3D sound versions of their most popular content.

Predictably, Asia's enthusiasm for 3D sound and content is spreading to markets in Europe and the US. But the excitement is about more than another phone feature; it's about a subtle but powerful shift in the way content will be marketed and consumed.

Indeed, operators believe reaching a new level of sound realism will result in a more compelling mobile commerce proposition. As one senior exec at a major European operator put it: "Hearing is believing, and advanced audio can surely boost sales of movie trailers and music downloads."

Orange has thrown its weight behind improved audio, and 3D sound will soon occupy a top spot on the list of handset specs it issues to manufacturers. Likewise, Vodafone is making real-time 3D audio a required feature in future Vodafone VFX-compliant handsets (the VFX spec essentially consists of a MIDP 2.0 combined with Vodafone's handpicked APIs), and recently licensed QSound Labs' microQ 3D audio solution, reportedly hoping to encourage more immersive mobile games with positional audio and better soundtracks.

Big Audio Dynamite

Against this backdrop, 3D audio is set to finally and fully transform the phone into a mobile games console. "There's a sort of arms race to develop the perfect audio output on a mobile," observes Simon Weitzman, founder of mobile content consultancy 3GXmobile. "Being able to 'feel' your way through a game through sound will be the kind of 'Luke, you've turned your computer off, are you alright?' ultimate experience that most gamers would die for," Weitzman says.

For Sonaptic, a developer of multi-channel 3D positional audio for mobile devices and creator of the technology behind several of DoCoMo's 3D audio FOMA handsets, the end-game is to create a "super-realistic" communications experience that transcends what mobile terminals can currently deliver.

"Prior to 3D sound, mobile was not about serious listening. Now we're seeing it's the sound that can reinforce the images and provide users a much more immersive mobile entertainment experience," observes Sonaptic MD David Monteith.

Voice Rules

SRS Labs, which last year licensed its WOW suite of audio enhancement technologies including 3D positional audio and psychoacoustic bass enhancements to Samsung, is currently in talks with "several European operators" and soon to announce a "design within Europe," according to Alan Kraemer, the company's CTO.

While much of the excitement is about 3D positional audio and psychoacoustic bass enhancements, Kraemer says there's also a fair amount of interest in using the company's noise-reduction technologies to get more mileage out of voice.

"Because of the rising popularity of ringback tones, we're looking at better ways of moving music through voice channels," he explains. Handset makers including Mitsubishi are also showing more interest in SRS Labs' Voice Intelligibility Processor technology, which improves voice quality in noisy environments. "From a carrier standpoint, it's a case of better calls mean more voice revenues."

Wave Arts sees untapped opportunities in the enterprise market. "Enterprise productivity pushes the wireless market toward making teleconferencing effective and mobile," says Bill Gardner, the company's founder. He envisions services that would use spatial enhancement and crosstalk-cancelling technology to reduce confusion during teleconferencing and create new collaborative environments.

Urban Sound and Sound FX

During the music and audio industries' annual brainstorming session in Texas last year, engineers and composers discussed music consumption and new mobile services. One sound-driven service they considered was a new twist on P2P social networking.

In this scenario, a user would set a profile to reflect his interests. When that user's phone detects another device via Bluetooth, the phone might then play a specific ringtone to alert the user that someone sharing his interests is nearby. Adding 3D positional audio would make it possible to locate the user (left ear, turn left; right ear, turn right). Participants also imagined "audicons" (audio emoticons) that punctuate emotional moments in the conversation -- sound effects that 3D audio would naturally enhance.

Phonebites takes this to a new level with Razz, its software that allows users to insert soundbites into their live conversations. "Imagine lines from movies, song snippets or jokes. Whatever sound the user feels is appropriate at that moment can be used to enhance the exchange," explains Jeff Kirschner, Phonebites' co-founder and creative director. One of his favorites is John Belushi's "Toga! Toga!" cry from the movie Animal House.

"When you use a soundclip that has universal meaning, everyone immediately understands what you want to express," he says. That's the "cool factor" that will make soundbytes part of a new user community language. "It could go the way of texting -- except users will communicate using sounds."

For now, users can choose from premixed soundbyte packages. In the future, they can upload their own soundbytes from their handsets to the company, which will then package them and send them back to the user to store on the phone or PC.

It's this kind of user-created content that Phil Murphy, an independent entertainment and new media consultant who has held senior positions at Real Networks and Sony Music Europe, says will drive mobile entertainment forward. Top of his list: advanced audio mobile mixing technology that allows users to capture, mix and share music.

"This could open up legitimate viral marketing of studio mixes," Murphy observes. "Who knows? Some user may produce a killer mix, leading to some interesting intellectual property issues." More open and experimental artists are sure to look upon such developments positively -- as will the operators bound to make money on this new sound exchange.