Recently, I have experienced a spike in my audio conference usage. We all put up with audio conferences because they are relatively efficient and a basic reality of today’s distributed workforces, however, few of us like them.
What I didn’t even realize, was that a large part of my frustration with audio conferences is with the sound. In other words, what’s really bad about audio conferences is the audio. It seems obvious now, but I got distracted by the other pain points. There are so many obvious problems with audio conferences that I never thought about the non obvious aspects.
It is easy to dislike audio conferences - where to begin:
- The ridiculous pin codes that are becoming longer than the actual phone numbers. These can be really tricky while driving – far more dangerous than texting.
- How about the prompts and detailed instructions that systems provide “you will now be entered into conference, but first let me explain several commands you will never remember...” doesn’t it know the conference has already started and I’m late?
- The chimes that interrupt and announce every participant’s comings and goings (or continuous dropping).
- The fact that not only do the meetings rarely start on time, but continue to restart every time someone joins.
So you can see why I never got to the audio itself, which is largely the same quality as regular phone calls. My expectation was telephone quality audio and that’s what I get, so no real complaints – I thought. Then I met with Dolby Labs, and got an earful of what’s really wrong.
Dolby explained that the standard tele-conference deprives the brain of needed auditory information. I know a bit about this stuff, and try to use wideband (HD) audio when I can, but the problem is bigger than what wideband audio addresses by itself – not to mention wideband conferences are still the exception.
Dolby is typically associated with recorded sounds in movies and music. But the company is actually busy in VoIP and online sound too. Consider "Need For Speed World," by EA. This online gaming community offers its players voice chat and surround sound effects delivered over the Internet to stereo headsets using technology and services from Dolby.
Dolby has developed new VoIP audio conference technology, but at this time it is limited to the lab. I got to try it out and was truly surprised – by what I’ve been missing. What Dolby has done is re-create the dynamics of live in-person audio over IP. Wideband audio combined with spatial sound. Stereo headsets are required for the full effect, but a single ear headset still works.
Spatial audio uses both headset speakers so each person is placed in a unique virtual space. Our brains normally decode audio with two ears, and they give it a considerable amount of information to process. In physical meetings, everyone’s voice comes from a slightly unique position that our brain’s understand and process. On this test call, I found myself actually looking in the direction of my virtual conference participant when I was speaking to them.
Adding spatial dynamics to a conference enables the brain’s natural hearing capabilities. For example, there is something referred to as the Cocktail Party Effect which describes the brain’s natural ability to decipher a specific conversation in a noisy environment. This isn’t possible on a traditional audio conference – only one person can speak at a time and any noise (dog barking, music, side conversations, etc.) disrupts the channel. Even without side noise, we’ve experienced this when we try to cut into the conversation.
With this Dolby technology, the brain can filter out these conflicts and focus on the content it wants to. Effectively, all the sounds are directed to both ears from different spaces giving the brain the required information to do what it naturally does.
Exactly how this technology gets to a phone near you isn’t as clear. Dolby is considering different options, but in the past it has not typically sold its technology directly to end users. Most people use Dolby’s technology via manufacturer licensing agreements such as a CD/DVD product. Going direct would be new, but this is afterall the age of consumerization. It is more likely Dolby will license its technology to enterprise equipment vendors and service providers. It is too early to tell.
Since my demonstration, my frustration with audio conferencing has increased. The technology is stuck in time and in dire need of an overhaul. I don’t think the basic audio conference experience has changed much in 30 years despite huge changes in technology and usage. The technology has gone from analog to digital to VoIP to cellular. Meanwhile, our conferencing minutes continue to increase and our workforce continues to spread-out.
The timing seems good for a revolution – and I think I may have heard the first shot.
Dave Michels is an independent analyst at TalkingPointz.com.