Over the past decade we’ve made some tremendous progress with audio quality. Most notably the G.722 and the Opus codecs that have made great strides toward the elimination of the narrow tunnel-tone associated with telephony audio.
More recently Dolby and app-based conferencing solutions such as Voxeet introduced spatial audio to conferencing. This is an interesting concept that allows each speaker to hold a unique virtual position within one’s head. The end result is far more than just fancy stereo. Spatial audio provides the brain additional interpretive information that makes audio conferencing more effective. The downside to spatial audio is it requires stereo headsets – at least for the full effect. Stereo headsets are increasing in popularity thanks to iPads, but single ear headsets remain significantly more popular.
One aspect of audio conferencing that’s highly neglected is room equipment. There’s been very little progress in terms of audio pick-up, since Polycom raised the bar with its saucer device about a decade ago. The general solution beyond noise cancelling/beam forming microphones is to simply add more microphones to rooms. That’s both costly but only marginally effective. Why is it that a single pair of ears on the far end of the table can still pick up more details than a remote party connected over broadband IP networks?
There is an answer to this – but it hasn’t quite been released yet. Dolby gave me a sneak-peek of what’s going on in their lab with next-generation audio conferencing equipment. The unit I saw was a pre-production “room capture device.” This particular unit was round and powered by power over Ethernet (POE). It could be used as a generic SIP G.722 endpoint – but that’s not the point. Using it that way offers comparable results to alternative solutions. The device is primarily designed to be used with Dolby’s advanced audio processing software.
Dolby’s still working out its go-to-market approach. Most likely it won’t be sold as a product, but instead as a service from a conferencing provider that markets the service and equipment together. Dolby has already struck one such deal with BT regarding spatial audio conferencing. The advanced Dolby software will likely run in the cloud at the conference provider’s location, with the provider to establish criteria to provide the hardware. A new type of hybrid audio conferencing service that requires specific hardware could be coming.
The current model just doesn’t provide an in-room-like experience, especially with large noisy rooms. Dolby intends to raise the bar with advanced processing and spatial audio techniques that captures audio potentially better than a pair of in-room ears. For example, when someone leaves the table to draw on the board, they often talk to the board as well. In-room attendees can still hear this, but the remote parties don’t. In my demo, the person talking to the board was clearly audible – this was from a single device centered on a table in a large room. The microphones could hear everything – and often filtered out what they determined to be noise. If someone speaking can be heard in the room, they can be heard remotely as well.
This type of solution will change audio conferencing as we know it. I look forward to its arrival.