Forget 5.1 – Try 380 Theater Speakers

Just when the industry has begun to accept the idea of Digital Stereoscopic 3D movies, a new way to immerse the audience into the movie is introduced. Normally, a theater speaker system, whether at a movie theater or in a home, has a fairly small "sweet spot" where the sound from all of the speakers line up to produce a good experience. A system that was just installed in one of the Mann Chinese 6 Theaters uses 380 speakers to expand the sweet spot to two-thirds of the seats. The result is a richer and more expansive experience.

The technology comes from Iosono (pronounced ee-oh-soh-noh), and it was introduced at the SMPTE 2008 Tech Conference and Expo in Hollywood. SMPTE is the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, an organization that helps to set standards for Digital Cinema and Digital Television.

While the Mann Theater uses 380 speakers, the technology is flexible enough to handle 200 or 500 speakers to accommodate different theater sizes. The location of each speaker is measured with a laser and used to calibrate the exhibition player software. The speakers are arranged in three rows. The top and bottom rows are woofers, while the middle row is tweeters. Speakers form a ring completely around the theater, including behind the audience and screen. Unlike most theater speaker systems, this system can recreate the sound levels of a rock concert, and must actually be toned down for movie viewing.

The point is to make the audio appear to come not from speakers, but from different spots in and around the enclosed space. As with 3D video techniques, "wave field synthesis" technology creates not just the sensation of sound extending out from the screen -- which surround-sound techniques can also do -- but also the illusion of sources deep behind the screen's surface. It's also more precise than surround sound, and the listener doesn't have to be in the center of the room to get the full effect.

Up to 32 unique sound objects can be placed in a 3D virtual sound space in the theater. If one object was placed such that it sounds like it is coming from the 10th seat in from the left in the 10th row, people in the 5th seat will think it is coming from their right. People in the 15th seat will think it is coming from their left. This trick is illustrated using Iosono's Spacial Audio Workstation. By simply moving the mouse to position the object in the theater space the system adjusts in real time to match. The listener can feel the object move about the theater.

Sound can also be programmed to simply come from a "plane", for example, from the left wall. This mode is particularly nice if the movie score is expanded to make the orchestra's music come from all sides. The music is immersive, while characters speaking the movie are heard to come from the screen. The expanded sound adds more definition to the music and the voices and the experience is given added clarity.

Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands came up with the theory behind wave field synthesis about 20 years ago, but personal computers weren't powerful enough at the time to do the work. Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg of the Fraunhofer Institut Digitale Medientechnologie in Germany took this research and expanded it into product form. Iosono, based in Hollywood, California, is now approaching studios and theater owners about taking their technology to the next step – deployment.

The company has at least one competitor, but Brandenburg said it's the first to deploy commercially. Notwithstanding any head start, it faces at least two significant hurdles. It has to persuade Hollywood studios to provide a 3D version of their movies' audio and it has to entice theater owners to invest in the required software, computer systems and extra speakers. That presents a chicken-and-egg problem -- theaters won't want to make the upgrade without a sure stream of movies with 3D sound, and the studios don't want to add 3D soundtracks unless there are theaters equipped to play them.

Uwe Karbenk, Iosono's CEO, does not want to talk about pricing just yet. Things are still a bit early, but they hope to have the first movie mixed for Iosono sound out in 2009. There are also some theme park venues that have already installed the system. And, the Iosono system can emulate a theater's 5.1 speaker system for regular movies.

Theater owners are constantly looking for ways to compete against the home theater system. Many see Digital Stereoscopic 3D as the solution where ticket sales on a 3D screen can be twice the take from a 2D screen. In the future we may hear of an additional weapon – a totally immersive sound experience. This sound experience coupled with Digital Stereoscopic 3D will be quite a treat, if the studios and exhibitors line up behind it.

And if the description of the system has you itching for 3D sound at home, Brandenburg counsels patience. The system's speakers must be mounted in a ring around the room, no more than about 6 inches apart. Even in a relatively small (12x12) living room, you'd need to hang more than 30 speakers on the wall, and there aren't any affordable flat-panel speakers that are up to the task today, he said. In other words, more technological breakthroughs will be needed before Iosono's products show up at Best Buy.

Source: DIGDIA and LA Times