Nowhere safe from Daleks thanks to new surround sound technology

Young Doctor Who fans may soon find that the sofa is not the refuge it once was.

The monster will get you there too, jumping out of big brother’s carefully positioned smartphone.

Pioneering audio technology being tested by the BBC will allow mobile phones, laptops and other wi-fi devices with speakers to become part of a super-immersive soundscape experience.

The intelligent system, known as “object-based production”, enables 20 or more devices to deliver drama to the listener from anywhere in a room.

Characters’ voices, individual sounds, and even reverberation tails can be isolated and brought closer or made more distant.

In contrast, ordinary surround sound is confined to just five speakers and cannot incorporate smartphones.

Dr Jon Francombe, from the BBC’s research and development department, said at the British Science Festival at the University of Hull: “This project is about giving people excellent sound experiences that are immersive and transportative.

“This is really hard to do in living rooms because people are not willing to install 30 loudspeakers and run cables across the floor.

“But actually if you look in most modern living rooms there probably are lots of devices with loudspeakers, so your telly will have two loud speakers built into it, but then you’ve got a mobile phone and there’s probably a tablet, maybe a smart speaker in the corner, and games consoles.

“Loads of devices these days have the capability of producing sound, and with the rise of the ‘internet of things’ they’re probably likely to be linked to the internet as well, which means we’ll be able to get a signal to these extra loud speakers somehow.”

After early tests, a new trial of the system has now been launched in which anyone with an internet connection can take part.

It involves a specially created science fiction story The Vostok-K Incident, broadcast on the BBC Taster website www.bbc.co.uk/taster/pilots/vostok.

By connecting via a Q-code, listeners can immerse themselves in the drama with up to 20 devices.

In future episodes of Doctor Who, the technology could make it sound as if the Daleks are inches away from exterminating viewers.

“I think many of the soundscapes you get on Doctor Who would lend themselves well to this,” Dr Francombe said.

“A couple of years ago we played around with the idea with a piece of horror content. There are some hard shock effects you can do, but the benefits of this system go beyond that.”

Object positioning technology could also lend an extra layer of realism to popular radio drama The Archers, researchers said.

Listeners might imagine themselves outside a dairy or in a country pub with all the accompanying sounds.

Dr Philip Jackson, another member of the team from the University of Surrey, said: “There would be the option to use spot effects like the bleat of a sheep, and multiple characters with different characters coming out of each speaker.”

The earlier studies indicated that speaker quality did not make a difference to immersibility. Listeners got the same experience from mobile phones as larger high quality speakers.

The research is part of a bigger £5.6 million Government-funded project called S3A: Future Spatial Audio involving the BBC and the universities of Surrey, Salford and Southampton.

- Press Association


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