A startup platform called Spatial features today’s first series of results, with a focus on creating immersive, interactive and automatically generated audio experiences. The results themselves are a bit complicated to explain, but the result is simple: environmental and interactive audio for public spaces that are easy to create and more vibrant than the usual routes.
While Spatial has a consumer offering, the most likely messengers will be businesses. Think of hotels that want a different audio experience in their lobby, theme parks that want to develop audio for their venues faster, brand activity, or AR experiences (National Geography the investor). Think about how corny the canine hearing is at the zoo; Space wants to put that right.
In one demo a week or two ago, I sat in a room and heard the sounds of a forest all around me, with birds chewing in one place and then moving to another – until a dragon disappeared above them and scared them all away for a while.
Truly nothing special: audio is located in simple space. What is complex is the engine that created all that audio. Spatial goal is to make a custom sound design for an easy space and also make that sound happen genetically instead of on a loop or path. There are three main pieces to it.
First up is Spatial Studio, a Mac app that is a kind of obscure meltdown of Logic and Unreal Engine. It defines a 3D space where users can send audio items – either sounds they have created themselves or drawn from a Spatial library. Users can even pipe in to live audio as an object – say, if they want to bring the sound of the nearby ocean into the lobby or just run a Sonos stream.
What is special about Spatial is that these audio materials have behavior. A bird can move on a predetermined path (with a little randomness so as not to get tired) or a tide can appear at certain times of the day, for example. These audio items may also respond – either to each other or to something that happens in the real place.
The second part of a Spatial system turns these dynamic audio materials into real sound that you hear in space. For that, it uses a Mac minis (or, for corporate customers, Linux) to run a real-time audio engine called Spatial Reality. It will accept inputs from different sensors if needed, or just let the small audio world run its course – and because things in that small audio world have different behaviors, it feels different all the time. Spatial has also created an iPhone app for more direct interaction.
You would think that the third part is the speakers, but that is the third trick of Spatial: it can work with any speaker setting. Spatial engine serves as a pull-up sensor that senses the position of the speakers in the room and automatically adjusts the sound to ensure the correct 3D positioning of the audio. Instead of a strict set of positioning rules, Spatial can work with what you have.
Michael Plitkins, one of the coffins, tells me basically that he believes that putting down audio is a static way back. It is better, he said, to let the computers work out in real time based on what they know about the speech system. As the product currently stands, Spatial does not bother with real-time tuning of in-room audio. It will work with any speaker setting, but users need to program in what they have in the Spatial Studio app.
Initially, the main Spatial competition is some Muzak mix for public spaces and whatever standard Disney Imagineers use for the audio in their theme parks. It may appeal to some hobbyists as well – part of the motivation for the company was Plitkins ’desire to create a landscape in his own backyard. I also had a display of that place, with cave sounds under the deck so real it was weird.
No matter who the buyers are, it may not be an easy sale. (And product launch means mostly for public spaces while pandemic is still another challenge.) Dynamically created water and birds don’t sound. different from a static audio system if you only listen for a minute or two.
But in a lengthy interview in a conference room where the team explained the results inside and out, they turned off the cab in the auditorium on the theme of the forest that had been quietly playing out. all the time. The strange silence was stressful, as are usually conference rooms.