Dolby Voice: Designing a Better Audio Conferencing Experience

Conference calls should be a great business tool. They let us get together with colleagues from across town or across the world to solve problems or brainstorm, all the while saving on travel costs and allowing us the flexibility to work from home or the road.

Unfortunately, as we all know, some conference calls aren’t great experiences. The audio quality is sometimes terrible; it can be tough to figure out who’s talking; if you’re joining remotely, it can be nearly impossible to get a word in; and setting up and managing the calls is a hassle.

But how do you fix those problems and make conference calls really valuable? That’s the challenge Dolby’s voice team set itself—to transform audio conference calls into experiences that are efficient, productive, and bring everyone into the conversation.

Because they understood not just communications technology but the science of acoustic perception, the Dolby team realized they would need to build a new audio conferencing system from the ground up. That meant both a new audio communications technology and a whole new approach to designing a conference phone.

“We decided to take an entirely different view of the problem,” says Andrew Border, Vice President of the Communications business group at Dolby. “We weren’t satisfied with making small improvements. Our aim was to leapfrog the previous technologies.”

The first step was developing Dolby Voice®, a revolutionary new audio conferencing system that debuted in 2013 in BT MeetMe with Dolby Voice.

Dolby Voice is transformative in a number of ways:

  • Sophisticated signal processing produces exceptionally clear audio, while suppressing extraneous noise like typing or the pounding of a jackhammer.
  • It’s much easier to identify who’s talking because voices are separated. Even if you join the conference call from home or on the road, you hear individual voices coming from specific points in space.
  • Everyone on the call, whether they’re in the conference room or joining remotely, can be heard at all times.

To get the full power of Dolby Voice technology, Border’s team knew they couldn’t depend on conventional conference phones. They’d need to build their own, again from the ground up. The result is the Dolby® Conference Phone, the only conference phone that can deliver all the benefits of Dolby Voice technology. It also features an innovative touch-screen interface that makes setting up and managing a conference call easy.

Helping the remote caller

Anyone who’s joined a big conference call remotely knows that situation comes with serious challenges. The voice quality can make it difficult to understand what’s being said, breaking into the conversation is a struggle, and it can be nearly impossible to tell who’s talking.

Because the Dolby Conference Phone is the only conference phone that fully supports Dolby Voice technology, it can deliver the service’s remarkably clear audio quality, making the conversation understandable and allowing all participants to be heard.

Reproducing the voice separation of Dolby Voice technology on a conference phone was a challenge, but essential for everyone on the call, both the people in the conference room and remote attendees.

By using multiple microphones and advanced software, the Dolby Conference Phone can capture the entire sound atmosphere in the conference room. Remote participants hear the voices of people in the conference room as coming from distinctly different points in space. In fact, the Dolby Conference Phone even captures movement. If the leader of the meeting gets up from the conference table and moves to the whiteboard, remote participants will hear her voice moving from one point in space to another.

It’s also important to separate the voices of the remote participants so that people in the conference room can more easily identify who’s speaking. Through sophisticated signal processing, the Dolby Conference Phone presents each remote caller as coming from a different location in the room.

Getting started

There’s no reason that you should have to enter more than a dozen numbers just to start a conference call. The Dolby Conference Phone changes that by adding the kind of intuitive touch-screen interface we’re all accustomed to from smartphones and tablets.

The touch screen on the Dolby Conference Phone lets you set up a call with only a few taps. And it shows the names of everyone on the call—no more wasting precious time with a labored roll call of “Danielle, are you on the line?” and “Leong, are you there?”

Can they hear us?

How many times has this happened to you: you think you’re on mute and make a side remark to your co-worker—then realize everyone on the other end of the call can hear you.

Our engineers and designers put a lot of thought into the mute function on the Dolby Conference Phone. As the call leader, “You don’t want to make a mistake, press the wrong button, or mute or unmute at the wrong time,” says Peter Michaelian, Head of Design at Dolby. To help with that, the designers put the most important functions—volume adjustments and mute—on large physical buttons that are easy to find and operate.

And to make sure everyone knows whether you’re on mute or not, we designed a halo of light around the center of the phone that can easily be seen from anywhere in the room. If the light is red, your call is on mute.

And as the leader of the call, you can manage the call from the touch screen. For example, you can choose to mute any of the remote participants. If a meeting participant takes another call and the rest of the participants are left listening to that person’s hold music, you can simply mute that line.

Boosting productivity

The point of all our technology and design is to produce a conference call experience that’s much more productive than the typical, exasperating voice conference.

We wanted to measure how successful we’d been, so we tested Dolby Voice and the Dolby Conference Phone using industry-standard methods for measuring how efficiently people can complete tasks.

Test subjects received task instructions in each of three ways: face-to-face, through Dolby Voice, or through a traditional conferencing system. The tasks, like recording a sequence of words that were read to them, were simple—if they could hear the other person clearly.

“What a way to finish the week. A call with @BTConferencing and @Dolby MeetMe. I’ve died and gone to #audioconf heaven”— Steve Blood (@SteveJNB) January 30, 2015

As you might expect, those who received instructions face-to-face were most effective at completing the tasks. But people who were instructed using Dolby Voice and the Dolby Conference Phone did significantly better at completing the tasks than did those who were instructed using a traditional conferencing system, indicating that the Dolby Voice system significantly reduces the gap between traditional audio conferencing and face-to-face meetings.

If you’re like most people, you spend hours every week on conference calls. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of causing frustration, the experience consistently helped you get things done? With Dolby Voice and the Dolby Conference Phone, that’s the experience we’ve created.