The power of immersive sound

Why are we working towards creating an immersive auditory experience? Several years of research into new formats and techniques have resulted in the immersive sound we know today. Always more accessible and more impactful for listeners, immersive sound is actually a significant adaption to the usual way we hear.

Cognition: At the Origin of Immersive Sound

The first traces of a desire to immerse oneself in sound date back to prehistoric times. Research still in progress shows that the location of drawings in caves that are now being excavated depended on echoes and various types of sound. A larger, louder room contains more ornaments than a smaller, quieter area. The practice of archaeoacoustics shows that humans have always been sensitive to and guided by sound. In the light of the most advanced archaeological research, a link is clearly established between sound and ritual

Likewise, the immersive aspect of sound helped drive the creation of human environments. For example, in the construction of temples, sound was a key feature in conveying messages to those present. The aspect of sound was considered in construction to generate particular states of mind, explaining the acoustic differences according to the places studied and visited.

In a more artistic sense, ancient theaters are equally convincing realizations of the importance of sound in their construction. The sound journey is designed into the very structure of the space. Later, the construction of the Wagner Hall in Bayreuth was intended to blur the origin of the sounds. It was one of the first halls built without loudspeakers, with the intention of immersive sound.

It is clear that immersive sound is an integral part of our history and the development of our culture. So let us go further – how can we take advantage of and better understand our relationship to audio?

Healthier Audio Experiences

Today, research between health and audio continues to evolve toward a more detailed understanding of the impact of spatialized sound on humans. Since our brains are constantly perceiving sounds from all directions, we are much more receptive to spatialized sounds to match our everyday perception. Compressed sound, in mono or stereo, requires extra effort and inevitably impacts our state of fatigue, stress and potentially anxiety according to studies on the cognitive impact of sound.

Certain formats and certain frequencies allow our brains to process them more easily and notably reduce stress. Research on sound therapy is not new, but it is evolving towards a more precise conception of sounds and their impact. These studies can go as far as research for hearing aids for people with hearing loss. From the treatment of mental pathologies to physical impact, immersive sound continues to be of interest to the health field.

Spatialization: Getting as Close as Possible to the Sound

The objective of audio spatialization is to give the impression of total immersion in a sound environment. Ultimately, it is about recreating reality in an artificial way to adapt to our brain’s habits. In the context of a video game, the immersion is enhanced for the game, by producing sounds coming from different places to trigger reflexes. In the context of music listening, it is more a question of accentuating the connection to sounds and voices, to give a more intimate dimension to listening.

The EsPro space at IRCAM, a phonographic projection venue, allows for immersive sound experiences in a collective way. The performances take place in a modular room that can be adapted to different performances and different sounds. The variable acoustics give this natural and credible aspect, as opposed to a speaker in an anechoic chamber, because the sound environment is a set of elements and not an isolated event. Spatialization seeks to place people at the center of the sound.

Ultimately, the cognitive impact of sound is such that it is not even necessary to have a high sound level. This means that sound spatialization allows less fatigue, less auditory damage, and acts directly on the health of individuals. Despite the fact that immersive sound requires advanced technology, its objective is to make people forget about the technique and generate a very simple and accessible result.

The auditory experience is an attractive field for research, which will always allow for more immersion and new sensations. IRCAM is working on new studies on multisensory perception, and in particular on auditory spatial cognition, through experiments between movements and hearing to define ever more precisely the perception of our environment.

– Mathilde Neu & Antoine Petroff