2021 has been quite the year for spatial audio. It was actually back in 2020 when Apple first released iOS 14 that included a new spatial audio feature for AirPods Pro — surround sound, complete with dynamic head tracking. “Apple’s newest take on sound took the world by storm. Being able to listen to sounds like you’re in a 3D environment is something that you could only dream of a few years ago.”
Spatial audio mimics theater-like sound, so whether you’re watching a movie, short video on YouTube, listening to music, meeting with colleagues while videoconferencing, or chatting with friends on Clubhouse (recently integrated in September 2021), sound feels like it’s coming from all around you, and provides a way to feel more immersed in the experience.
How does spatial audio work? “There are two techniques used to move sounds left/right and in-front/behind you,” writes Philip Rosedale, CEO and Co-founder of High Fidelity, in "What is Spatial Audio?”. “Combined, these techniques are often referred to by the acronym of HRTF, which stands for Head Related Transfer Function. To spatialize sound, engineers shift the time delay between both left and right channels, and adjust the loudness of frequencies relative to the unique position of your head.”
To learn more about spatial audio technology and its benefits, check out this blog post. So then — which companies and apps are leading the way with this technology, and helping empower better communication?
Apps That Support Spatial Audio
Simply put: Spatial audio recreates the way we hear sound in real life. There is a ton of cool research about how it helps people not only feel more immersed in natural conversations virtually, but also actually decreases cognitive load (goodbye, Zoom fatigue), while improving speech intelligibility, too. Let's dig into the software that already supports it.
Clubhouse integrated spatial audio last month, and it’s already made some big impressions.
I updated my @Clubhouse app to try out this new “Spatial Audio” thing and when I did, the audio came through my Bluetooth speaker and I SCREAMED. It’s never worked for me and it sounds like a podcast now. I don’t know what y’all did but thank you! 😩🙏🏽🙃
In their recent update on Sept. 30, 2021, Clubhouse writes: “Spatial Audio has been even cooler than we expected. From musical performances to storytelling rooms, to debates, it has really improved the experience on Clubhouse… so now we’re rolling it out to everyone [Android included]. Huzzah!” (Spatial audio for iOS rolled out a month earlier on Aug. 29, 2021).
If you haven't used @Clubhouse in recent time, I recommend opening it once again. The integration of @HighFidelityXR's spatial audio technology positions every speaker in a virtualized room setup and you hear them accordingly on your headphones. Gamechanger! 🤯 https://t.co/aJ8ZfuLN74
One user also noted that spatial audio helps with accessibility, too. “Listening now, and if you’re in the audience, it really helps separate out new voices when someone starts to speak. Will be good for accessibility. As they talk, the voice is gradually phased to a more central position, so you don’t have someone ‘stage left’ for the entire time,” Morgan Evetts writes.
2. Apple's FaceTime + Apple Music
With iOS 15’s release on Sept. 20, 2021, Apple writes, “FaceTime is more essential than ever, giving users a way to easily connect with the people who matter most. Powerful updates to FaceTime audio and video features make calls feel more natural and lifelike. With spatial audio, voices in a Group FaceTime call sound like they’re coming from the direction in which the person is positioned on the screen.
José Adorno reviews it on 9to5Mac: “With Spatial Audio on FaceTime, Apple says it creates a ‘sound field that helps conversations flow as easily as they do face to face.’ Unfortunately, this feature is only available on iPhones with the A12 Bionic or later, as known as iPhone XR/XS or later.”
This update (iOS 15) comes with a handful of other new features. Other than the above, there’s not much yet to report about FaceTime’s spatial audio quality itself, or peoples’ experiences with it. Time will tell.
Apple released spatial audio for Apple Music back in June 2021. They write: "Spatial Audio gives artists the opportunity to create immersive audio experiences for their fans with true multidimensional sound and clarity. Apple Music subscribers will also be able to listen to more than 75 million songs in Lossless Audio — the way the artists created them in the studio."
Happen to use other streaming services? You can also try out Apple’s spatial audio support on the above devices on other services like Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, or HBO Max. Here’s a full list of supported apps.
Reddit users report it is working: “I watched 6 Underground movie and it worked like a charm! Really impressive,” one person writes, although we haven’t found too many more reports about user experiences.
Want Your App to Support Spatial Audio?
If you're looking to add spatial audio to your native app (like Clubhouse!) using software, you're in luck — this is actually not difficult anymore, as High Fidelity's Local Spatializer is available for on-premise licensing... meaning that your audio streams will be spatialized in real-time on the client.
A little more info about the sound itself: It's High Dynamic Range (HDR) audio, handles simultaneous talkers and nearfield effects without distortion, and Opus Codec format for attaining recording-studio quality sound.