Anaheim, CA—While immersive audio has become a buzzword at pro audio conventions in recent times, Sennheiser has been in that space for a number of years now, steadily developing, refining and implementing its AMBEO 3D sound technology for a variety of uses, most notably virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). But while professional and consumer interest in them seems to ebb and flow depending on the latest technology trend story, AMBEO has been steadily moving along as Sennheiser has created partnerships with related companies in the field, resulting in a growing ecosystem of products for creators and consumers alike over the last six years.
While AMBEO is often mentioned in the same breath as AR and VR, it wasn’t initially created with those uses in mind. “At the beginning, AMBEO was a small initiative for us that aimed to reinvent the way we perceive music,” said Andreas Sennheiser, co-CEO, Sennheiser. “It started out with giving the artist an opportunity to express himself when it’s not live in the very same way as if it were live. That was the idea.”
Approached by artists who were dissatisfied with production workflows and, likewise, with how listeners ultimately experienced their recorded music, Sennheiser began exploring the possibility of creating a new immersive audio format. “We found out that if we really want to make something that is indistinguishable from a live event, we need to cover the whole range, from recording—how it would be recorded, mixed and processed through the algorithm—to how it’s played back. This is where the idea of AMBEO came from: Okay, let’s reinvent this whole chain.”
A chain has to start somewhere, and much like the typical signal chain, it began with a mic. The AMBEO VR microphone made a humble debut in 2015. “At the time, it was a very small market,” recalled Sennheiser. “It was really only a couple of VR producers who were into this idea. We started small with a virtual reality microphone, and it was a co-creation between us and potential users. We presented it at NAMM in a state where you could say it was an ugly prototype, but it was so well received that within eight months we had something out in the market.”
With the VR microphone established, the company continued to expand its presence in that burgeoning marketplace, said Sennheiser: “Step by step, we started to bring in other things. We did installations in 9.1, we did software that connects the two things—the recording and playback type—and now with AR coming in and volumetric-capturing production technology, we suddenly see ourselves in the core of something that is taking off very quickly.”
While interest in the various “reality” technologies seems to keep shifting, the upside is that regardless of the visual application, the user experience is always improved by quality sound. “For me personally, VR is something that is more a transition into AR,” said Sennheiser. “We need VR to invent all the content, all the production workflow and all that, but ultimately where it can become a mass-market application is the space of AR.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the company aims for AMBEO to be part of both VR and AR, with Sennheiser himself envisioning it as “a standard, but not in a form where we would have a closed standard you would pay royalties for—more like a de facto industry standard that we want to establish.”
With that in mind, while the technology remains closed to Sennheiser products, the company has been partnering with others, like Magic Leap, working in secret together for four years to create an AMBEO headset that works with Magic Leap goggles. AMBEO software has also been incorporated into various Zoom and TASCAM recorders to allow use of Sennheiser’s VR mic, and more collaborations are on the way. “To bring our vision of a perfectly new 3D audio production workflow to life, we need to team up with a lot of companies in different areas, and this is how it’s building gradually,” Sennheiser confirmed.
Sennheiser, Zoom Set 360° Team Up, Sep. 15, 2017
Sennheiser, Expands AMBEO Platform with New Partnership and Technologies, March 9, 2018
Aiding that effort are advances in VR and AR, consumer acclimation to the technologies, and the growing number of real-world uses for them. “Currently the limitation of AR is the form factor—we are just not walking down the street wearing headsets,” Sennheiser mused, “but that’s going to be overcome in time. I see all sorts of applications where digital reality adds value to your everyday life—like walking down the street and getting directions or information about what’s around you. Or perhaps you’re deciding how to furnish your home by placing virtual objects there. You may also want to know how it sounds instead of an empty room, to have this experience as if it were real. [There’s also] virtual meetings, where we can sit together physically and then have two or three other people sitting here as holographic projections—we want the sound to be perfect so we can hear the virtual people where they are.
“There are so many potential applications for this that I think we’ve just scratched the surface,” Sennheiser noted. Much as there has been experimentation with allowing viewers to choose different camera perspectives in Formula 1 and other sports, “in the future, you will be able to choose different audio perspectives. You get more involved, as if you were there.”
While they’re intriguing ideas, they require the various VR and AR technologies to take root and become more widely adopted by consumers, which, in turn, requires something else: content. “It’s the chicken and the egg,” said Sennheiser. “The demand cannot develop unless there is content. It’s like a great bottle of wine—you can’t judge it by looking at it; you have to open it and drink it, and then you know. So that’s why we [Sennheiser] have to work on both sides, to let people experience it and see how great it is, and from there, the demand is spurred. Then, coming back to the pro side, it’s providing the microphones and workflows to create the content.”
Related: Festival Captured in AMBEO 3D, Aug. 1, 2017
While that hasn’t happened yet on the scale that he anticipates, Sennheiser is committed to staying in the space until it does: “Besides our core business—because we will never let go of microphones—probably AMBEO will be the biggest focus of exploration for us. We tend to grab trends very early and then decide which we want to follow and which we don’t. AMBEO was something where we saw great opportunity … but it’s more because innovation is in the DNA of our company.”
Sennheiser • www.sennheiser.com
AMBEO Augmented Reality • sennheiser-ambeo.com