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Report: New adventures in immersive audio

As immersive audio becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the more ambitious technology developers and installers are exploring the ways in which it can augment other immersive elements such as VR, writes David Davies

The rise of immersive audio in the installation and broadcast & media markets over the past five years has been nothing short of remarkable. While the Dolby Atmos and MPEG-H technologies have been responsible for the lion’s share of headlines thanks to their rapid adoption in broadcast, this movement is to some extent predated by the trend towards multi-channel configurations in pro-AV environments such as museums, exhibition centres and concert venues.

Hence it should not really come as a surprise to find that the sector is now spearheading a new wave of increasingly ambitious projects that blend immersive audio with other technologies such as virtual reality (VR). Moreover, it is apparent that venue operators are aware that high-impact installations of this kind could be a way of enticing customers back through the door after two years in which many will have taken steps to upgrade their own domestic AV set-ups.

“The baseline of expectation has definitely risen,” says Niky Ellison, head of marketing & brand communication at UK-based company We Are Immersive. “There has been a period [during the pandemic] in which people have had more time to make their homes comfortable and perhaps invest in some new AV.” The fact that so many people spend “so much of their lives online” is another important consideration that means museums and other venues are “needing to offer something different and spectacular” to ensure they remain relevant.

Having launched its first binaural microphone, the MKE 2002, back in the 1970s, Sennheiser is able to draw on five decades’ experience of immersive technology. In the last 20 years, its research in the field has become increasingly intensive, ultimately leading to an important moment of realisation around 2015. “We noticed an increasing demand for 360-video and found that creators needed professional capture workflows for Ambisonics, which was then emerging as standard for the next generation of virtual reality content,” says Renato Pellegrini, manager prolabs, AMBEO immersive audio at Sennheiser.

Van Gogh exhibition

The result of the company’s deliberations was the Sennheiser AMBEO VR Mic, developed to support ergonomic and easy-to-deploy 360-video production. The mic – for which Sennheiser has also developed a specific workflow – has since found favour in field recording and audio capture for a wide variety of applications, including virtual reality content production. Now, after what he describes as a “slight detour” during the pandemic, Pellegrini indicates that ambitious immersive projects are on the rise again in museums and exhibition spaces.

“Plus, outside of traditional museums, there has emerged a trend of immersive physical experiences like the Museum of Ice Cream and the Color Factory, as well as groups that blend the virtual and physical like Meow Wolf or the immersive Van Gogh exhibitions that are popping up all over the world,” says Pellegrini. “Alongside these are heavily immersive, headset-driven, location-based experiences. These productions are deeply exploring the intersection of performance/interactivity, as well as that of physical space and virtual space.” He is particularly impressed by current touring exhibition The Infinite, which uses a variety of immersive technologies, including VR, to allow visitors to experience life onboard the International Space Station.

Pellegrini also hints that we should expect museums to incorporate some of the new learnings they have acquired during the pandemic – a period in which many have expanded their online presence. “Museums have experimented with alternative, digital presentations of their collections [in the past few years], and it will be interesting to see if and how some of these experiments filter back into the gallery space,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sennheiser’s own confidence in the continuing potential of immersive technologies has been underlined by a series of developments including the introduction of an AMBEO A to B format converter, as well as the arrival in the Sennheiser portfolio of immersive content creation tools developer Dear Reality in 2019, and – in July 2022 – audio innovator Merging Technologies.

“There is a huge space for growth in immersive audio experiences to come,” says Pellegrini. “VR and immersive audio have a great potential to enhance the visitor experience by making it much more immersive, memorable and engaging – not to mention bringing in an extra level of personalisation and interactivity, which is a perfect attraction point for the newly curious returning visitor in the post-pandemic world.”

Production studio We Are Immersive is another company to have been paying especially close attention to the development of the market since the middle of the last decade – no wonder given that the business was established in 2015. Ellison echoes the sentiments of Pellegrini in observing that the pandemic period has heightened public expectations. “A lot of people will have invested [in AV] as part of making their homes more comfortable,” he says. “That means there is a need [for organisations] to use technologies that make the outside world more exciting again.”

Given that, it is undoubtedly helpful that technologies such as VR and immersive audio have continued to mature steadily throughout the past seven years. Invited to consider whether customer expectations can still outstrip what is actually possible and practical, Ellison responds: “I think if you asked that question two years or even six months ago, there would have been a different answer. But the fact is that the gap between expectations [and what can be achieved] is really closing now, and that is for a couple of reasons, including the greater availability of skilled workers and the technologies becoming more accessible.” There has also been a significant period of time in which “people have had the opportunity to find out more [about immersive technologies], so they have a clearer understanding of them at this point in time.”

Recent years have seen We Are Immersive deploy immersive audio, VR and other experience-based technologies for an increasingly broad base of customers, ranging from the British Red Cross to West Ham United and IKEA. Ellison points to retail and visitor attractions as two markets currently generating a lot of enquiries, and suggests that the blend of VR and immersive audio will only become more commonplace. “So many more people now have VR headsets in the home, so it’s only logical that their use [will become more frequent] outside the home,” he says.

Marco Perry, who founded the company Immersive Audio in 2009, approaches the market from another distinctive angle, having worked on a wide range of music-based spatial audio projects – including with Bjork, Depeche Mode, Damon Albarn and Massive Attack – as well as immersive installations in museums and art galleries.

Like Ellison and Pellegrini, Perry agrees with the suggestion that the blend of VR and immersive audio can be highly potent in public spaces. He also implies that, in a broader context, we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what can be achieved. “There is so much creative potential in immersive technologies,” he says. “I would say that, in the last few years in particular, there has been [an increased awareness of the need] to develop these more memorable experiences, and the role that new technologies can play.” With price-points of VR headsets and immersive audio systems also becoming more attractive, it’s a “step that a lot of organisations are now willing to take… They recognise that they have to attract and retain interest in different ways.”

Marco Perry at work

From his own perspective, he indicates that a deeper understanding of how people relate to immersive experiences – and the extent to which this can differ between individuals – has also been hugely beneficial. He was recently given his own immersive gallery space at Somerset House, where he blended music that he had composed with a variety of ambitious and experimental visuals. “Of course, some people passed through the space [quite quickly], but there were others who stopped and really engaged with it – one woman said to me that it was ‘like looking at the contents of my head’,” he says. “So there is a potential there for these experiences to be profound.”

Encouragingly for the future development of all-encompassing AV experiences, Perry says that his ongoing experiences as an educator have shown that the next generation of creatives is inherently engaged with the potential of immersive technologies. “They are absolutely tapped into those technologies – they have a great understanding of them and want to be able to use them to realise incredibly creative projects. Their passion is evident and they are producing some incredible work.”

All of which bodes well for the continued dynamism of a market that has become increasingly buoyant during recent years. Last word to Ellison: “More and more sectors are looking to immersive technologies to enhance the visitor experience, and that’s proven by the extraordinary range of enquiries we now receive – it’s really diverse! So I would say that I am very optimistic about the future of this market.”