Surround Sound from a Mobile Phone
Tricking the Brain into Hearing in Stereo
Four young people from Taiwan have created in the U.S. a breakthrough sound technology for producing stereo sound using a mobile phone, all without external speakers. Here's how they've done it.
Tricking the Brain into Hearing in StereoBy Lorena Chang, Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 601 )
Stereo sound, the benchmark technology that has reigned worldwide for 60 years, is finally being toppled by four young Taiwanese living in Los Angeles.
Star Wars producer George Lucas once said, “Sound is half the experience.” In movies, games, and performances, sound is critical.
Dolby Surround Sound, a familiar technology, requires a certain kind of hardware and space, making it less accessible for ordinary consumers. However, Ambidio, a Los Angeles-based startup founded by 29-year-old Iris Wu from Taiwan, has rewritten the ground rules for audio technology with just a notebook computer and a mobile phone.
During her interview with CommonWealth, Wu played a trailer for the movie Gravity on her mobile phone in which the lead character played by Sandra Bullock, floating in space, narrowly escapes being pelted by meteor fragments. With just a mobile phone, the immersive sound still manages to envelop the viewer in a smorgasbord of aural sensations.
“Ambidio’s ideal is to let the sound live out its depth, breadth, and range, to give the creator more ways to tell the story, and even to tell a better story,” Wu says.
Upon hearing Wu demo the breakthrough audio, Black Eyed Peas singer and producer will.i.am, a seven-time Grammy Award winner , decided on the spot to invest in Ambidio, which was founded in 2014. In an interview with Billboard magazine, will.i.am stated that Ambidio’s sound technology could make him more creative with how to immerse the listener in three dimensions, which would change up the whole process of his creation, and that in the future audiences would be able to experience new kinds of musical performance.
Ambidio’s brilliant sound caught will.i.am’s ear, as well as the attention of Horizons Ventures, a venture capital firm founded by Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, and both parties engaged in a race last year to provide seed funding for Ambidio. Skywalker Sound, George Lucas’s Oscar-winning partnership with Disney that has delivered the dynamic sounds of blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Titanic, announced this past March that it would also be getting on board with Ambidio via a strategic partnership.
New Immersive Sound Technology
Established two years ago, Ambidio has attracted considerable attention. The company’s know-how extends beyond music and programming, into the realm of such specialized knowledge as human physiology and user experience. Each member of the Ambidio team, comprised of young Taiwanese born in the 80s, brings expertise in a different field to match the company’s wide-ranging theoretical foundations. Together, from their base in Los Angeles, they are writing a new chapter in the sonic revolution.
While studying at Taipei First Girls’ Senior High School, Ambidio founder Iris Wu was a guitarist in the popular music club. After graduation, she commenced studies in the School of Medical Laboratory Science and Biotechnology at Taipei Medical University. While pursuing her university studies, she interned at a hospital and worked as a guitar teacher at a music store, which helped her realize that she truly loved music, thus fueling her decision to pursue a music-related career. The expertise she acquired in biology would fortuitously yet unintentionally help provide the foundation for her subsequent entrepreneurial pursuits.
Wu headed to the United States in 2011 for a Master’s degree in music technology, specializing in 3D acoustics at New York University. She soon came to the realization that the principles of audio engineering, whether in relation to mono, stereo, or surround sound, could never get away from thinking in terms of speakers, which invariably led to the urge to increase the number of speakers in order to enhance the sound.
Wu also observed that, despite constant improvements in listener experience technology, the market was still fairly lukewarm to them. For example, with home theaters, “the most obvious limitation is that you need five speakers, as well as the requisite space, in addition to content to play.” Assorted equipment limitations, plus the fact that mobile devices have changed viewing habits, have conspired in such a way that people rarely get to hear the high quality audio options that are out there
“Why do you have to listen through a speaker? Why can’t you just bypass it and let your brain figure out the sound?” Wu wondered. It was that curiosity that led to the thinking behind Ambidio and formed the basis of her Master’s thesis.
Homing in theoretically on the brain, Wu’s thinking was innovative yet direct: The human brain is equipped with a mechanism to position sound spatially , so as long as differences in timing, resonance, and wave forms are utilized and applied to a sound system, it is possible to trick the brain into thinking that sounds are coming from different directions.
No Time Like the Present to Start a Business
Wu taught herself programming, wrote her own application, and went around sharing it with friends, saying, “This thing is so cool. Want to try it?” Among those she approached was Pei-lun Hsieh, a childhood friend and top student of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University. Hsieh later became Wu’s co-founder at Ambidio.
The two didn’t set out intending to start a business; they simply sought ways for more people to hear “such cool audio.” After countless discussions and seeking input from others, they ultimately decided to set up a company and apply for a patent. “It was all a bit haphazard,” admits Hsieh. Later , when they got in touch with Li Ka-hsing’s Horizons Ventures through a friend and sent out a demo, they received an immediate invitation for a videoconference. Just two days later, Horizons Ventures asked them to come to Hong Kong for further discussion in person.
“They’ve invested in a lot of startup companies that they believe could change the world,” Wu says. Li’s company not only provides resources, but has also taught the new entrepreneurs at Ambidio a great deal. “They are like advisors, offering suggestions about where to go and what to do, but without forcing us,” she says.
Next, Hsieh got fellow NTU double-E graduates Tsung-chuan Ma and I-chun Hsiao to join up, and the four-person team was complete.
Hsieh is a computer graphics expert who studied at the University of Southern California. Ma, whose expertise is in hardware and circuits, worked as an engineer at MediaTek for three years before heading off to UCLA to seek a new direction. Hsiao, the fourth member of the company’s core team, studied user experience at the University of Michigan. Asked what drew them to Ambidio, they all say it was the demo that captivated them. “After listening for 30 seconds, I was thinking: I’d love to join this!” says Ma with a chuckle.
Well on their way in academia and planning to spend years obtaining Doctoral degrees, all three of them happily changed course to embark on the uncertain path of entrepreneurship. “The thing about this is, if you miss it, that’s it; you can always get a Ph.D. when you’re 40 years old,” Hsieh says, to which everyone listening to him there agreed.
In the four-person team, music meets engineering while emotion meets reason , all coming together to define Ambidio’s unique attributes.
“People trained in engineering look for better ways to make breakthroughs, but we think about what sort of products people want, or what sort of experience they are after,” Hsiao says.
From acquiring knowledge to applying it, the four neophyte entrepreneurs have never had it easy in their venture. Invariably, academic expertise is never directly applicable, necessitating “lots of extrapolation,” Hsiao explains.
They never describe the entrepreneurial process as trying, however, and this is because they believe that difficulty and fun are two sides of the same coin.
Now in its third year, Ambidio’s super sound is being heard around the world, and opportunities to enter cooperative projects for cinema, music and gaming keep coming, including working on Hollywood sound effects, as well as discussing various applications of their technology with Taiwanese vendors at the Golden Melody Festival.
“We’re not actually out to replace anyone. People often ask us how we are different from Dolby, and it’s interesting – because we can make their things sound better,” asserts Wu, maintaining her characteristic humility amid a torrent of stiff competition and rapid change.
Entrepreneurship is fraught with uncertainty, “But everything we’ve endured will sustain us for the future,” says Wu. Great expeditions should be undertaken with partners, and Ambidio’s core quartet is reshaping the way the world hears.
Translated from the Chinese article by David Toman