Time to kill some hype. We dont' like doing this to new technology, but occasionally, we need to call something out for not being quite as revolutionary as everyone is making out to be.
On the chopping block in this case is Ambidio, created by New York University student Iris Wu. Wu's Invention is a piece of software that can be applied to any source to give it an appearance of 3D sound. In other words, you could theoretically watch Netflix on your laptop, and have sound sources arrive as they would if you were right in the middle of the movie.The idea of Ambidio is turn any sound source into a full 3D soundscape.
Sound revolutionary...right? Maybe. There's very little information on Wu's tech available - her website is bare-bones - but it hasn't stopped outlets like Wired and Bloomberg from exploding with glee. Problem is, it's all been done before.
Let me share a little story.
In 2012, I was working a recording studio/creative agency in London. We had a really big contract to do a good chunk of the ads for Spotify - the little commercials that played between songs on the streaming service. These were songs that were listened to primarily on headphones, and so we're always looking for ways to make our commercials more interesting. One of the things we experimented with with was 3D sound.
This sounds complicated. It wasn't. Essentially, all we had to do was download a plugin for our audio software called Longcat 3D. We could apply this to any audio source, and give it the appearance of being in three dimensions. We could literally make a voice or a sound appear to be slowly moving around your head. It was actually uncanny. Of course, it relied on the listening happening through headphones, but it was still great.
We didn't get to use it a lot. Clients were scared of it, loving its potential but afraid that their customers would be too weirded out. Kind of a shame, but that's advertising.
When I read about Ambidio yesterday, I admit I got excited. I love surround sound, love immersive audio, so hell yeah: I was up for this.
Then I watched a demonstration of the tech, performed by a Bloomberg staffer. And...eh.
As you can hear from the video, it's certainly impressive. The sound really does appear to be 3D. But the thing is, while I was listening to it, all I could think was: hasn't this been done before?
Curious, I turned down my main speakers and put on my headphones. it really was good. It was also exactly the same, or at least sounded exactly the same, as the results I got from Longcat four years ago. It was certainly impressive, but it didn't sound revolutionary.
I guess what Wu is going for is 3D sound from unconventional sources, like laptop speakers. If that's the case, then more power to her. Laptop sound, for one thing, could use a major improvement. And I acknowledge that it's still very early days, that Wu has Skywalker Sound onboard as technical advisors (which is one hell of a badge of approval), that will.i.am has signed on as a backer, and that I could have this completely wrong. But right now? This doesn't sound like it's going to revolutionise anything.