One of the inventors of the MP3 format is back with a new technology that he hopes will revolutionize audio, creating superrealistic sound for theaters, theme parks and eventually even living rooms.
Karlheinz Brandenburg, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Media Technology, along with a team of co-developers, is in Los Angeles this week showing off his new "Iosono" technology to representatives of Hollywood studios and giants including Disney. Brandenburg is credited with much of the work leading to the MP3 format, also developed at Fraunhofer.
He and his team are touting their new product as true "three dimensional" audio, which can give the impression of, for example, a horse galloping through the center aisle of a movie theater, or pinpoint a noise so that it sounds exactly like a person shouting from outside theater walls. The best existing surround sound speakers can approximate this only for a small "sweet spot," perhaps a few feet wide, while the Iosono system would create the same realistic illusion for everyone in the room.
"It was an old dream to do something like that...to do something for immersive audio, where people would feel they were in a different place," Brandenburg said in an interview. "PCs have now become fast enough that you can do the (necessary) processing in real time. It was not realistic to do that 10 years ago."
The project marks a substantial break from the way recorded sound has been replicated since Thomas Edison first began experimenting with recorded audio in the late 1870s. Just as video is being wholly transformed by digital cameras and computer processors, audio production and reproduction, too, is being transformed by the latest generation of PCs and processors.
Sound amplification has worked in much the same way for years. A sound wave is turned into an electric impulse, which is turned back into sound as it hits speakers. In the early 1930s, stereo or "binaural" sound was first patented, which used two sound sources to create the illusion that the sound was coming from a wider space.
This technique developed over time into the sophisticated audio systems of today. Sound is split between speakers into "channels," and recording tricks such as hints of echo or reverberations are added to create the increasingly realistic impression of sound coming from all around a listener.
But most of this analysis worked on the principle of a perfect listener positioned at exactly the right midpoint between the speakers, where the sound waves would meet and interact to create exactly the right illusion.
"Many of the developments in this area have been about fine-tuning frequency response and brute horsepower," said David Stump, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer and visual effects artist who has seen demonstrations of the Iosono technology. "The thing that's different about Iosono is that it just takes the approach of intelligent analysis of what sound really is and how it shows up to your ears and applies that in a different way."