Movie theaters offer immersive cinema experiences that online streaming services cannot match, but that edge might be eroding due to an audio technology developed by a Taiwanese entrepreneur.
Iris Wu (吳采頤), the founder of Los Angeles-based sound company Ambidio, said that the technology can create a multi-dimensional sound field with added depth for videos played on any mobile phone, laptop computer, or TV with stereo speakers without the need for expensive equipment.
“It’s like going from a black-and-white canvas to a colored one in terms of sound experience,” the 33-year-old said.
Wu’s software technology is backed by Grammy award-winning artist Will.I.am and Horizons Ventures, the private investment firm of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠).
Ambidio, cofounded by Wu and her childhood friend Hsieh Pei-lun (謝沛倫) in 2014, has also enlisted Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Sound, one of Hollywood’s largest audio post-production companies, as a strategic adviser.
“We want to help make artists better story-tellers so that the stories they tell are more convincing,” Wu said.
The technology works in one of two ways, she said.
It can either be directly embedded into movie and audio files, or be applied when the files are uploaded online and played on a streaming service provider in real time.
In either case, the consumer cannot buy the technology to improve the sound of videos they are watching. Instead, it would be up to the content creators to use the software and give viewers the immersive experience they are looking for.
Many have already done that to test viewer feedback, and indications are that viewers are noticing the difference, Wu said.
She cannot disclose the names of the content creators because of confidentiality agreements signed with them, as they gather their own feedback online, but those interested in sampling the sounds for themselves can find clips on Ambidio’s Web site (www.ambidio.co).
Wu said that Hollywood’s “Big Six” film studios are using Ambidio software more frequently for their streaming services, and the company is getting involved in more diverse projects, whether they be movies, music or sports events.
She has also reached out to the Taiwanese market.
Her first joint project would be a 10-episode coming-of-age TV series titled The Magician on the Skywalk, which is to start airing on the Public Television Service (PTS) in February.
Ambidio ultimately hopes to emerge as the sound standard for the entertainment industry, with its brand name as common a fixture in the business as the ubiquitous Dolby label is today.
The idea to create the technology came up when Wu was pursuing her master’s degree in music technology at New York University from 2012 to 2014, she said.
Frustrated by her inability to create quality sound for her master’s project in her own small apartment, Wu began experimenting with sound engineering through code rather than hardware and the technology gradually took shape.
After 18 months of exploration, Wu found the key is to trick the brain.
“No matter how many speakers you have, at the end of the day, you only have two ears to receive the sounds,” she said.
Given that limitation, Wu started inserting common cues — including differences in timing, wave forms and resonance — into audio files that the brain uses to identify and perceive where different sounds within the audio stream are coming from.
By manipulating the brain, her technology has evolved to offer a range at least three times wider than conventional methods for simulating 3D sound.
Wu’s audio technology won her an Honorable Mention in last year’s Engineering Excellence Award from the Hollywood Professional Association, a trade association established by major post-production facilities and manufacturers.
Last month, she helped veteran Taiwanese film re-recording mixer and Palme d’Or winner Tu Duu-Chih (杜篤之) speak at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers’ Annual Conference, the first Mandarin speaker ever at the century-old organization’s annual event.
“There are some good stories in Mandarin-language films that the world doesn’t know about,” Wu said, adding that by connecting Tu to the technology and the world, the cultural heritage embedded in Taiwanese films, such as vivid cooking sounds that have drawn Hollywood’s attention, can be shared more widely.
Wu said that she owes her success to good luck and persistence in pursuing her interest.
A zealous guitarist since high school, Wu joined bands and taught in a musical instrument shop after graduating from college, a meandering path that only fueled her determination to follow a music-related career.
“Dare to dream and dare to explore,” she said. “The Taiwanese people have a lot of potential.”
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