Audio Spatialization + Remote Collaboration

I’ve been thinking for a while about audio spatialization in the context of remote collaboration1.

Audio spatialization is when you process audio in such a way that it sounds like it’s coming from a location in space, around you, rather than from your device loudspeaker or kind of ‘inside your head’ when you’re using head-/ear-phones. The effect is easier to achieve with -phones because then you have independent control over what each ear hears and no interference between the two; but you can also do it with an array of well-placed speakers, like a home theater surround sound system, and it sounds more natural because natural audio usually doesn’t materialize directly inside your ear (‘bzzzz’ – ‘aagh get out!’ – <a vague disgust lingers>).

The processing is a little complicated2, but it is certainly possible to get quite realistic, and modern technology makes it not that computationally challenging either. (Although virtual reality research has explored this topic since at least 1993. Really there was so much VR research in the 90s—sadly, then nor now, the rest of the technological world hasn’t made it commonplace.)

Tying this into remote collaboration: it often happens over group video or voice calls, and the majority of widely-used platforms don’t do spatialization at all3. What would spatialization look like in this setting? My proposal is that each person in a call would have a seat at a virtual table, and would hear the others talking as if from their positions around the table. (This can be optionally augmented by tracking the direction of the listener’s head so you can ‘look at’ someone who’s speaking and the audio changes accordingly. Could use the webcam stream or mobile phone accelerometer data or something else.) Depending on the nature of the work/collaboration, there could be multiple tables within earshot of each other, or each person could have their own table where others can join if they want to talk (and this will be faintly but not distractingly audible to others).

For now let’s stick with the single table. Why might a collaboration platform want to support this? I conjecture:

  1. The ‘cocktail party’ problem: real-life discussions can organically generate side-discussions and cross-talk. These are hard to manage in a superimposed mono stream of everyone’s audio, but our brains have a lot of experience in focusing on some (spatial) sources of sound and tuning out others.
  2. Keeping track of the conversation without video: if you can’t or aren’t using video, using positioning information can make it easier to tell who’s talking, in addition to recognizing their voice. It’s easier for someone to jump in when their half-word–interruption isn’t mistaken for noise; it’s easier for others to tell that they haven’t spoken for a while.
  3. Aesthetics: it just seems more natural. Like actually being at a table together. If not practical value, it has a sort of artistic value4.

Of course there are good reasons that major platforms have for not implementing this, probably a big one being computation overhead, either on their servers or on users’ machines, the latter which may not always be capable and the former which may not be worth the (perceived) benefit. But then I discovered that someone has already started to work on just this: High Fidelity. They’re in a beta phase right now so I signed up for a trial, and tried it out with some friends, but it didn’t quite work. (Edit: I’ve since learned from my friends of a bunch of platforms that do this, including Hubs and CozyRoom.) Interested in seeing where this technology goes in the next year or so!

  1. Parts of this post are inspired by some research papers I read (ask me if you want to see them) and a brief conversation with Phillip Wang, one of the founders of Gather/Online Town which is a very cool related project, and another conversation with my dad. Also useful is the MDN docs page for the HTML5 web audio API, which includes some nice spatialization capabilities, and the OpenAL-soft project which implements a cross-platform API for 3D sound, including spatialization among many other goodies. 

  2. Briefly, there are two ways to do it. The first is to use a dummy model of a person (a detailed one—the shape and material of the ears matters a lot!), play predetermined sound samples (pure sine waves) from various angles around the dummy, record just inside the ears of the dummy, and when you want to play actual audio, modulate (convolve) the source audio with the recorded samples. You can read more about these head-related transfer functions. The second is to build a mathematical model to simulate the effect by playing with the millisecond delay between when sound reaches one ear or the other, the frequency-filtering effects of the outer ear and head (and sometimes torso), varying amplitude in relation to distance and how much sound is blocked by the head/body, etc. This is simpler to program and understand but can be computationally more expensive and less realistic. 

  3. They do other advanced stuff like automatic echo cancellation and background noise reduction and turning down people who aren’t currently speaking. They also have to deal with the headaches of having so many different media formats and web media protocols and differing browser and system requirements and connection quality and encryption and aaagh. 

  4. You could even add reverb to make it not only sound like people are positioned in space, but also like people are in a room, i.e. the sound effect of being in a small padded office vs. a large glass-window conference room. This leads me into another augmentation/variation: back when I took 21M.080 (intro to music technology), my final project was to simulate the reverberation profiles of various spaces on the MIT campus (which I did with the jankiest recording equipment possible). You could play an audio file or speak into a microphone and have it sound like it was in Lobby 7. But what if you could have a conversation in Lobby 7? What if you could in addition play the background noise of people talking and passing through Lobby 7? What if you could have a conversation while ‘walking through’ campus, and the ‘sound environment’ changed accordingly as you entered a hallway or a classroom, stepped outside, etc.? I’ve been ruminating on this sort of thing since then. 

Leave a Comment

Username (required)
Comment (Markdown allowed)
Comments will appear after moderation.