By Dr. Mike Hollier, Vice President and Chief Technical Officer, Communications Business Group, Dolby Laboratories
Everyone knows that traditional conference calls are often frustrating experiences—tedious, confusing, and unproductive. But to fix conference-call technology, my team at Dolby had to figure out why these calls work so poorly.
The answer, we found, lies in evolution and the science of the human brain. We’re not evolved to understand conversations in which every voice comes from the same place, in which it’s hard to distinguish one voice from another and in which we lose subtle audio cues.
It’s no wonder that when we have to contend with the unnatural, mono audio stream from conventional conferencing tools, we struggle to have fully productive meetings.
At Dolby, we’ve applied our deep understanding of human brain function and audio engineering to develop Dolby® Voice™, which uses sophisticated signal processing to create a conference-call experience that seems to your brain like an in-person meeting. The technology is debuting exclusively in the BT® MeetMe with Dolby Voice service.
To understand how—and why—Dolby Voice technology works, it helps to start with an understanding of why face-to-face meetings work.
When we enter a conference room for a face-to-face meeting, our brain quickly completes a complicated analysis. Within 30 seconds, we’ve created a model of the room in our heads—not only do we know exactly where everyone is, we even evaluate the room’s reverberations to further pinpoint sounds.
As the meeting goes on, we can distinguish subtle audio cues, such as someone clearing their throat because they want to speak. We can tell who’s chuckling and who’s signaling disagreement. And we can do it all without even thinking about it. We’re barely aware we’re doing it.
Traditional conference calls destroy most of the information that we instinctively rely on. All the voices come from one place, so we have trouble distinguishing who’s talking. The audio quality is terrible, so it’s hard to understand what is being said. And we can hear only one person at a time, so we lose all those audio cues that signal when someone disagrees or wants to be heard.
Without that data, our brains have to work overtime just to keep track of what’s being said and by whom. For example, one of your colleagues suggests a novel and interesting strategy. But you’re so busy trying to figure who has spoken and exactly what they said that you have limited brainpower left to evaluate the idea itself.
With Dolby Voice, we’ve restored much of the information that the brain needs to make conference calls feel like face-to-face meetings. One key element is voice separation. On a BT MeetMe with Dolby Voice call, you’ll hear each participant’s voice coming from what feels like a different place in the room, so it’s much easier to keep track of who’s speaking.
We’ve raised the audio fidelity of the call, so people’s words are much clearer and more distinct. At the same time, our technology screens out the extraneous noises—the clicking of a keyboard, for instance, or the crinkling of paper—that can drown out the conversation on traditional conference calls.
And with Dolby Voice, the conversation can no longer be hijacked by one loud person who won’t stop talking. On a Dolby Voice conference call, you can hear more than one person speak at a time, allowing the kind of natural interaction that happens face-to-face. People can interject important pieces of information or politely signal their desire to speak, and everyone can hear them.
With these changes, conference calls become much more pleasant, natural experiences where participation, spontaneity, and collaboration become commonplace. We believe the effects will be profound.
In our testing, we see that people who take part in Dolby Voice conversations relax. Suddenly, the strain of understanding what’s being said is gone, and people can truly process the conversation, consider each other’s points, and make thoughtful contributions.
Conference calls go from being something people dread to a tool that allows significant collaboration among teammates across the city or across the globe. And that unlocks the full potential of an organization in a way that we believe will be transformative.