International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Travellers often don't realise how important audio is to their travel experience.
From enjoying a movie on a hotel room TV to hearing an announcement in an airport security line, audio speakers are a subtle necessity for a smooth and pleasant trip. With the introduction of 3D audio technology, the aural aspects of travel are set to be revolutionised, in the same way 3D movies like Avatar and game consoles like the Nintendo 3DS are revolutionising visual entertainment.
Unlike "surround sound" speakers, 3D audio can precisely pinpoint up to eight people in a room and direct sound at each one individually by sending separate signals to each ear, so that each person no longer has the awareness that sounds are coming at them from specific speakers. The technology can make it sound as if a bird is flying around your head in a full circle, not just passing from one side of a room to the other.
This Pure Stereo technology, invented by a researcher at Princeton University, has been licensed to companies that will manufacture small wireless units for consumers and businesses. The first manufacturer, Cambridge Mechatronics, plans to sell its speakers under the DynaSonix brand.
The technology is still in an early stage; it works best with small groups of people, in reasonably sized rooms. We are still years away from companies investing in 3D audio, but I can't resist daydreaming about the possible applications for future versions of this technology. Eventually 3D audio will roll out to every industry, including travel companies, and there are several areas of travel that could be enhanced by 3D audio speakers.
GPS devices could give their driving directions in a fresh, safety-enhancing way. Imagine that you're driving and your itinerary requires you to make a sharp right turn. At this point, the automated GPS voice could be made to sound as if it were being spoken to you from the right-hand side of your car. Your attention would be drawn to the right at the same time your brain processes the information about turning right, instinctively communicating to your body what to do next. Need to turn left? A sound could be thrown at you from the left-hand side of the car.
Cutting edge hotel room entertainment
Luxury hotels have been quick to install high-quality TVs to impress their guests. Adding 3D audio as a compliment to these screens could have two perks. Because guests usually watch the screen from different locations in a room, speakers could provide a targeted, richer sound for each guest. Even better, because the sound would be targeted, the overall volume in the room could be lower while still achieving a dynamic effect, thereby minimising the amount of spillover noise that might disturb guests in neighbouring rooms. It seems like a no-brainer addition for five-star hoteliers.
Less cumbersome museum visits
Goodbye, audio guide! A key benefit of 3D audio speakers is they can target the ears of individuals in specific areas without having to loudly disturb everyone with the same message that may not be relevant to everyone. In Berlin’s Reichstag building, visitors currently wear headsets that are activated by sensors as they pass different points on a spiralling footpath underneath the Norman Foster-designed solarium-style roof. As they see different parts of the skyline, their headsets are activated to play relevant history lessons. Years from now, 3D audio will render such headsets moot. Travellers will be able to take in the 360-degree views from any angle, and as they walk to different points around the circular space, they'll be able hear relevant messages about what they're seeing, without needing headsets and without disturbing other visitors nearby. Museums could also combine 3D audio with 3D visuals to re-create historical scenes and scientific demonstrations that are more vivid and memorable.
Improved attention at airport security
Travellers may feel guilty about it, but sometimes they can't help tuning out the repetitive announcements that blare from speakers while they pass through airport security. (Think of announcements like: "Put all liquids in a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag.") The list of instructions can become monotonous and easily tuned out. But 3D audio might change that. By strategically placing speakers at specific points on a snaking airport security queue, airport officials could send targeted, brief messages to travellers passing through each segment of the line. After shuffling forward a bit, travellers would stop hearing that message and enjoy an aural break. Then they would shuffle forward a bit more and hear another simple, targeted message. By gradually doling out information, officials are more likely to get travellers to pay attention. Such 3D audio technology may seem like a gimmick, but similar attention-getting techniques have had modest success at other airports. In London, Luton Airport's experiment with a talking security agent hologram provides eye-catching instructions to travellers standing in a security queue. The holograms, which come in male and female versions, have boosted compliance with airport security policies and speed up the lines, according to the airport's initial surveys. The use of 3D audio might have similar benefits.
Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel