Surround sound system on the cheap uses mobile phones and laptops

Technology allowing mobile phones, laptops and other Wi-Fi devices to become part of a surround sound system for entertainment is being trialled by the BBC.

The system is being touted as providing the same experience as an immersive audio system but eschewing cables and expensive loudspeakers.

Users can test out the technology by listening to a 13 minutes science-fiction story that has been created to take advantage of extra connected devices.

Dr Jon Francombe, at BBC R&D said: “I think it’s important for audio research to focus on bringing great sound experiences to as many people as possible, and the S3A project team have been developing new technology to achieve that. One way is to make use of devices in the home that are connected to the Internet and can reproduce sound.”

“To take advantage of this, we needed to produce the audio in a flexible format, design rules for intelligent adaptive processing, and develop techniques for connecting and synchronising the devices. Consequently, this work has been a huge collaborative effort between sound designers, research scientists and developers.”

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.

In a spatial audio system that includes mobile devices, there’s no way of knowing what the setup in a listener’s living room will look like in advance.

The technology uses  “object-based media” to flexibly reproduce audio, regardless of what devices people connect and where they put them. This works by separating the sounds and having a set of instructions that describe how they can be reassembled. The researchers designed an intelligent system that adapts the audio playback based on the instructions, sending sounds to loudspeakers that are available in the room.

It has historically been difficult to set up surround sound systems in the home, as doing this well has required expensive wired loudspeakers in carefully controlled positions. The new system that’s been developed removes these requirements by using devices that are already available and adding the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions.

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