How Spatial Audio Helps our Brains Perceive Sound Differently

While you may have heard the buzz around spatial audio, it's more than industry chatter. Understanding and utilizing spatial audio is quickly becoming a necessity.
How Spatial Audio Helps our Brains Perceive Sound Differently

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When sound is “incomplete,” as with low-resolution or distorted audio, our brain works harder to fill in those gaps. But spatial audio is one step ahead – it works to fill the gaps of what’s missing, or at least trick the brain into perceiving that it’s all there, to construct its signature 3D sound.

Spatial audio replicates how humans perceive sound in real-world settings by using techniques like Head-Related Transfer Functions (HRTFs) and object-based audio to give each sound element its own "coordinates" within a 3D environment. It’s different from stereo audio or binaural audio.

In the past few decades, there has been a growing trend toward immersive listening experiences, catalyzed by advancements in theatrical sound technology and the emergence of technologies like VR that demand increasingly realistic soundscapes.

By incorporating elements such as sound localization, spatial cues, and reverberation, spatial audio can enhance immersion and realism in various applications. More professionals are integrating spatial audio into their projects and standing out because of it. Anyone looking to create immersive, engaging, and memorable experiences may benefit from spatial audio. And in turn, those experiencing the audio will benefit as well.

The Hidden Benefits of Spatial Sound

There has been ample research over the past decade showing the benefits of higher-resolution audio and more dimensional listening experiences on the brain, be it when listening to music, moving in a virtual environment, or having a group conference call.

In an interview with Forbes, acoustic technology expert Chris Vernon explained, “The extra processing required for the human brain to ‘decode’ badly processed audio causes measurable stress, anxiety, and decreases cognitive and physical performances all-round.”

However, spatial audio can help mitigate these effects. A 2021 white paper from Spatial Sound Institute (SSI) founder Paul Oomen and his team at The Works Research Institute in Amsterdam offers a deeper dive into The Effects of Spatial Sound on Human Wellbeing. According to the paper, emerging research into spatial sound as a medium is providing new insights into the principles of sound and how to apply those principles to wellbeing.

Addressing issues of low-resolution audio and spatial disorientation in video conferencing, Immersitech CEO Jim Poore said in a previous article, “Spatial audio gives users the proximity orientation where your brain kind of knows that you hear it from the right, left, or center. It’s such a simple thing, but when everything is monotonous, your brain has to deconstruct the different streams coming in from all the different people. That makes your brain work considerably harder, and that’s one of the main reasons why you see a lot of the stuff on Zoom fatigue.”

Using spatial audio, we can begin to unveil new possibilities in which audio content and personal sound reproduction products such as earbuds, headphones, and speakers deliver audio in a way that improves wellbeing, all while making the actual listening experience more dynamic, immersive, and pleasurable.

This reality is starting to take shape in many areas across several industries. In fact, it’s already big in the burgeoning world of virtual reality.

The Quality of your Audio Depends on your Hardware

The difference in spatial audio becomes even more apparent in highly immersive environments like virtual reality, where audio can dictate much of the experience and impact. There will be no metaverse to speak of without the inclusion of spatial audio.

VR headsets like Oculus Quest 2, HTC Vive, and more support spatial audio and provide spatial audio as part of the immersive experience. But to truly experience spatial sound in VR, you’ll need headphones that deliver high-quality sound and isolate external noise. While VR headsets offer spatial sound, the overall experience depends on the headset’s capabilities and the headphones you choose. Nanotechnology, along with other advancements in design science and acoustic engineering, are allowing hardware manufacturers to reproduce even better and more full-range audio through smaller products, like earbuds and multi-purpose hearables that sit comfortably inside our ears.

When creating an experience with your own project, take some time to research and make a deliberate choice about the hardware that you’ll need to build the experience you want.

Using Spatial Sound for Your Project

Here are some tips for integrating spatial audio into your projects:

  1. Understand the Technology: Familiarize yourself with spatial audio technology and its capabilities, including formats like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Ambisonics. Each format has its own requirements and benefits.
  2. Plan Ahead: Integrate spatial audio into the project from the beginning rather than as an afterthought. This allows for better planning of sound design and ensures that the spatial audio enhances rather than distracts from any visuals.
  3. Balance Audio Elements: Ensure a balanced mix of spatial audio elements to avoid overwhelming the audience with too much information. Pay attention to the clarity and separation of sounds to maintain coherence.
  4. Consider Audience Environment: Keep in mind the environment in which the audience will experience the audiovisual project. Adjust the spatial audio accordingly for different playback systems, such as headphones, stereo speakers, or surround sound setups.
  5. Learn from and Collaborate with Sound Designers: When recording spatial audio, you will have to consider the listener’s point of view and place the microphone at that location. Specifically, you will need to decide the x, y, and z coordinates of the listener as well as which direction they're facing. Work closely with various sound designers and engineers who specialize in spatial audio to optimize the audio experience. Their expertise can help fine-tune the spatial effects and ensure compatibility with different playback systems.
  6. Test and Iterate: Regularly test the spatial audio implementation throughout the production process and adjust as needed. Receive feedback from colleagues or test audiences to identify areas for improvement.
  7. Stay Updated: Keep updated on advancements in spatial audio technology and techniques to continually improve the integration of spatial audio into your audiovisual projects.

The increasing accessibility of spatial sound solutions is further accelerating its adoption, enabling more people to experiment with spatial placement, movement, and three-dimensional soundscape. It also opens the gateway for more studies to be done on the impact of sound on our wellbeing. Most importantly, it unlocks a world of possibilities.

Need some inspiration? For a look at spatial audio in action, check out this AVIXA TV video on how a cocktail bar immerses its visitors using spatial audio.

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