In late January, web video comedians Tripp and Tyler released a video called A Conference Call in Real Life. In four minutes, the pair exposed just how ridiculous and frustrating conference calls often are: the inability to figure out who’s speaking; the problem of two people speaking at the same time; the participant who delivers a long monologue or a keen insight, only to realize his phone is on mute; the at-home worker whose dog is barking in the background.

The video has been viewed more than 6.5 million times and has inspired countless comments like this: “I think just about every single conference call I’ve been on has been like this …”

It’s clear that many people dislike conference calls. The question is why. Scientists at Dolby have been studying the human brain to figure out why conference calls work so badly—and what we can do to fix them.

Although much maligned, conference calls are necessary and ubiquitous in the modern workplace. Distributed and mobile workers need to meet in real time, and no other solution offers the convenience, simplicity, reliability, and affordability of audio conferencing. According to Marc Beattie of Wainhouse Research, about 65 percent of all conferencing is still done by audio-only calls. Market research group Frost & Sullivan notes that organizations today spend 200 times as many minutes using audio conferencing services as they do video conferencing services.

Brain strain

Even when audio conferences appear to go smoothly, our scientists have found, they are rarely as successful as in-person meetings. Why? Because they force the brain to work in ways that are counter to its nature.

Our hearing evolved using incredibly sophisticated neural processing that allows us to hear the type and location of sound, which helps us interpret what we hear. Is the sound coming from a predator or from a baby, friend or foe, competitor or collaborator? Spatial and other subtle kinds of cues are missing from current conference call technology, where the audio quality tends to be poor, every voice seems to come from the same location, and participants hear only the loudest individuals.

Dr. Mike Hollier, Dolby VoiceDr. Mike Hollier, an expert in auditory science and engineering who now serves as the VP and CTO of Dolby’s Communications division, says that without this important data, workers’ brains struggle to understand what’s being said and by whom:

The part of the brain responsible for our conscious intelligence, the lateral prefrontal cortex, is very small relative to our entire intelligence. In fact, if we visualize our entire cognitive capability as the size of a football field, then our conscious intelligence – the portion of our intelligence that’s available in the moment — would be the size of a tiny grain of sand.

In face-to-face meetings, we don’t need to strain our conscious intelligence to figure out who’s speaking or what they’re saying. That processing happens automatically. But conference call audio is so hard to decipher that we need to devote our conscious intelligence to analyzing audio information. With our conscious intelligence so taxed, paying attention to the subject of the conference call is exhausting.

To address these problems, Dolby applied its understanding of the human brain and its advanced audio technologies to create Dolby® Voice™. This technology is available exclusively in the BT® MeetMe with Dolby Voice service. (If you’re attending Enterprise Connect, you can experience Dolby Voice for yourself at booth 1027.)

Why Dolby Voice is different

Dolby Voice conference calls sound different than regular conference calls. The platform features the type of high-fidelity sound you would expect from the company that pioneered noise reduction and cinema surround sound. But on a Dolby Voice call, you hear each participant’s voice coming from a specific and separate location, so everyone is easily understood and distinguished. A Dolby Voice call simulates a face-to-face meeting, in which you know that John is at the end of the table and that Lydia is across from you. That makes it much easier for callers to keep track of the conversation, which frees them (and their brain power) for the substance of the meeting.

To study the effectiveness of various ways of collaborating, Dolby conducted a series of experiments to compare how workers performed a specially designed and highly interactive set of tasks when working together in person, on a Dolby Voice call, and on a conventional conference call.

Not surprisingly, the research showed in-person meetings to be the most effective. Dolby Voice, though, proved to be a far more efficient alternative than conventional conference calls. Study participants who used Dolby Voice were almost 60 percent more efficient than workers who used a conventional conferencing system.

An important part of the Dolby Voice system is the new Dolby Conference Phone. Dolby has reimagined the conference phone as an elegant, easy-to-use device that not only delivers great sound quality but bridges the gap between in-room and remote participants so that everyone can contribute equally.

Meeting participants get a full picture of what is happening in the conference room, says Andrew Border, Vice President with the Dolby Communications division. “Everyone knows who is speaking and understands what’s being said. Dolby Voice harnesses the collective IQ of every one on the call, because everyone is engaged and communicating more effectively.”

Read more about Dolby Voice audio conferencing.