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The 3D revolution in digital media has so far been a visual one of blue-skinned creatures, cartoon characters and sports stars leaping out of the screen as we watch from behind glasses that Elton John might think twice about. But 3D is now being developed as an audio experience too.
The development of the technology could have significant advantages for the publishing industry, gaming, news media and the advertising sector. Novels or articles can be enhanced with embedded sounds that bring an added dimension to the reading experience without drawing the eyes from the text.
The techniques are already being used by the publisher Pan Macmillan, which has matched the sounds described by Ken Follett in his latest novel, Fall of Giants, and attached them to the text in the ebook version available from Apple's iBooks. Nike has used similar technology in its latest advertising campaign made by the groundbreaking agency Wieden + Kennedy and featuring the Spanish footballer Andrés Iniesta.
The BBC is also experimenting with the technology. Radio 3 is already offered, via the BBC website, on a new fatter signal described as “HD sound”. Tim Davie, head of BBC Radio, says: “We are looking at how we record things in surround sound. It's early days but for digital systems you can begin to see how you can get surround sound and even 3D sound. It's pretty impressive what you can do with drama and I could see us doing specials over the coming year.”
At the forefront of the development is the sound designer Nick Ryan, who uses techniques in “binaural” recording (where the physical and perceptual characteristics of human hearing are mimicked by using two microphones placed around 7in apart) and adapts them for digital media.
In one of the first projects using the method, Pan Macmillan commissioned Ryan and the creative agency Pd3 to embed four pieces of 3D audio in the ebook edition of Fall of Giants, which is the first part of a trilogy from Follett and is his first work for three years. The book is set between 1911 and 1924 and covers the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Women's Suffrage movement.
“The 3D sound idea came from looking at the act of reading and how we could enhance that without detracting from the beauty of transporting people's imaginations to other places through narrative,” says Cat Botibol, the creative director of Pd3. “Video clips and pictures seemed to almost detract from the experience because they take you away from the actual text and bring visuals into your mind that might be different from how you are imagining the story.”
Descriptive passages were chosen and the four sound excerpts are almost free of human voices, to minimise distraction for the reader. Ryan then set about translating Follett's words into sound as exactly as he could. By clicking on a link at the start of a passage, the user can hear audio that simulates life in the First World War trenches, in a Welsh coalmine, in an East End military uniform factory staffed by women, and at an opulent dinner party in Moscow before the revolution. The trench scene combines the shattering noise of a ferocious barrage with the sounds of a soldier running across no man's land, with the audio matched to the text of the book at the pace of a typical reader.
“A lot of people had talked about the speed at which you read and how we matched that to the sound,” says Ryan. “There's quite a big window, bigger than we thought. If you hear something before you read it the pre-emption is quite satisfying, as is hearing it after you've just read it because it's then a demonstration of what you just read. But the people most satisfied are those for whom it's been completely on the money as they read the words.”
The use of embedded audio in digital books is seen as mirroring the “extras” provided with DVDs, only this extra is introduced in the body of the content and not as an afterthought. “This particular concept felt like a genuine enhancement,” says Rebecca Ikin, marketing director at Pan Macmillan. “The conversation about what is an enhancement, what is an interruption and what is an additional thing that you put at the end of the book and what you put in the flow of the text, is really just starting to become a thing for authors and publishers to battle with.”
The use of embedded audio provides opportunities across print media. Botibol says there are opportunities here for news organisations. “If you could have a specially recorded soundscape recorded from right in the middle of a march such as the student protests it would be an amazing experience to add to the written reportage. I do think there's interesting potential there.”
There is a difference between “enhancement” of embedded audio and providing the user with a link to a separate audio report. But Ryan thinks that the embedding of 3D audio into written news reports raises interesting questions on whether the objectivity of the journalism would be compromised by a technique that normally involves creativity. “The similarity [with the Follett project] is that you are trying to immerse someone in the story but the difficulty is that it's factual so you have less creative licence,” he says.
“Are you providing people with the means to create their own visualisation of what it must be like or are you trying to tell people exactly what it's like? Maybe there's trade off. If you are able to give someone a very vivid experience just through sound, then you have to allow their imagination to create a very personal picture.”
Advertising does not demand the same objectivity and Ryan's techniques have been incorporated into Nike's new campaign for the CTR360 Maestro II football boot. Referencing the name of the product, the ad has been shot in 360 degrees to replicate the experience of playing as Andrés Iniesta. Ryan, working with London-based production agency Factory introduced all-around 3D sound to make viewers feel as if they - and not the Barcelona midfielder - are wearing the boots as he waltzes around opponents.
“There's lots of 3D sound activity going on,” says Ryan, an award-winning composer who has also made the first audio-only computer game. Papa Sangre, which was produced by the London company Somethin' Else, is based on a South American parlour game called Sangre y Patatas - a macabre version of Blind Man's Bluff. It's set in a castle filled with sound-sensitive monsters and is influenced by Mexico's day of the dead carnival.
Ryan is about to experiment with something called “big field functionality” in the follow-up, Papa Sangre 2. “For me this is the absolute holy grail of this technology,” he says. “We will enable people to navigate the augmented reality of sound by walking round a big field and we can superimpose things on that space.” He is also working on an audio-only computer game called Nightjar, set in outer space.
Binaural recording techniques themselves are not new. “People were very excited about them in the Seventies at the BBC,” says Ryan, who once worked in an obscure unit called the BBC Imagineering Department, where he held the job title of audio media futurologist. “It was an amazing department but very quickly shut down. We were film-makers, animators, directors, storytellers and producers and I was the audio person.”
At the BBC, Ryan won a Bafta for Technical Innovation for The Dark House, a Radio 4 drama with 3D sound. “The audience voted on which character's perspective they heard the play from and I mixed it live on air according to the text messages we received in the studio from the audience.”
When Ryan has discussed the potential of binaural recording with some of the veteran sound engineers at the BBC they have rolled their eyes in recognition of a familiar concept. “It comes into fashion every so often but I think the reason that it will stick this time is because of the ubiquity of mobile devices,” he says. “Whereas before most people listened to sound out loud you can guarantee that most people listening on mobile devices will be using headphones and that's precisely what you need for binaural to work and makes it a very viable proposition.”
Listen to a sample of the 'Fall Of Giants' ebook at ind.pn/follet3d - The Independent