From MP3 to audio in 3D

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Karlheinz Brandenburg of the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology helped develop the MP3 format more than a decade ago, setting the stage for a new era of music consumption. Lately, he’s been adding a new dimension to his audio achievements -- technology to deliver sound in true 3D.

Tuesday at noon, Brandenburg unveiled the first U.S. deployment of this technology at Mann’s Chinese 6 theater in Hollywood. Distributed by a Fraunhofer spin-off called Iosono, the 3D sound system consists of dozens of wall-mounted speakers controlled by software that dictates what each one of them plays at any given moment. 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.

Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands came up with the theory behind wave field synthesis about 20 years ago, Brandenburg said, but personal computers weren’t powerful enough at the time to do the work. About eight and a half years ago, efforts to develop the technology took off when the European Union and a local German governing body provided funding for it. Over the past couple of years, Iosono has deployed versions of the system in five countries, including a theme-park ride in Germany and a Swiss rehabilitation clinic for the injured. Now, as digital cinema and 3D video spreads, Iosono wants to make its way into theaters, too. The installation at Mann’s Chinese 6 wasn’t just for demonstration purposes -- it’s a permanent upgrade.

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 (at least one movie with 3D sound is expected next year), 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.


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.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.