Science & Tech

This Is Your Brain on Conferencing

Dolby audio innovations have repeatedly opened new possibilities in cinema, home theater, and broadcast sound. Recently, the Dolby team decided to apply its years of audio experience to improving conference calls and video conferencing.

Effective business runs on effective communication. And in today’s mobile and global work environment, conferencing is a key way that people communicate and get work done.

Unfortunately, the audio technology in traditional conferencing solutions isn’t optimized to transmit sound in a way that the human brain can naturally process it. This leads to people struggling to hear and understand the conversation, making it difficult to participate or even recall what was said. Ultimately, this poor audio experience impacts efficiency and productivity.

What would it take to improve the conferencing audio experience? To answer this question, the Dolby team started by looking at what makes communication during in-person meetings so effortless.

Meeting face to face

When people meet face to face, communication is seamless. Audio fidelity is perfect. It’s easy to tell who’s speaking. Without thinking about it, people can pick up on subtle verbal cues and micro-interactions from others that signal agreement and disagreement or that indicate someone is waiting to speak. They can quickly filter out unimportant sounds, such as background noise, and home in on what people are saying. This all makes for a natural audio scene where communication is effortless.

This natural audio scene is exactly what the human brain has evolved to easily unravel. Fed by two ears, the brain quickly picks up sounds coming from different directions, associating talkers with their spatial locations. It readily distinguishes between overlapping talkers, and instinctively identifies and separates voices from other noise.

With an understanding of how in-person communications worked, the Dolby team turned its attention to the problems traditional conferencing audio introduces for the brain.

Meeting on traditional conferencing tools

Traditional conferencing solutions strip away the essential audio cues the brain relies on in face-to-face communication. Audio fidelity is much lower, and location information is lost. Voices come in at different levels, so the loudest person on the call is often the only one people can hear clearly. Overlapping talkers are difficult to differentiate. Additionally, traditional conferencing tools make no distinction between important and extraneous sounds. Background noise mixes with participants’ voices for a jumbled audio scene.

Instead of being able to focus on the content of the conversation, the brain must divert its attention to this very unnatural audio task. This has the same negative impact as multitasking. By the end of a call, participants are often fatigued and disengaged. With all their effort directed toward trying to hear rather than concentrating on the meeting, people may not even recall what was said.

In such circumstances, productivity falls significantly. According to a 2015 study conducted by Dolby Laboratories, tasks that typically require 60 seconds to complete in person take up to 134 seconds—more than twice the amount of time—over traditional conferencing tools. That is quite a loss.

Re-creating the face-to-face experience with Dolby Voice

As the Dolby team continued investigating conferencing audio, it became clear that in order to address the issues of poor audio fidelity and re-create the critical cues the brain relies on for effortless communication, it would be necessary to build a new solution, starting from the ground up.

Dolby Voice is that new solution. A breakthrough in conferencing audio technology, Dolby Voice delivers much greater audio fidelity than traditional conferencing solutions. This means participants can easily pick up on the subtle verbal cues and micro-interactions that signal agreement and disagreement, or that someone is waiting to speak. Dolby Voice uses spatial audio technology to place voices in distinct locations, so when people speak on a call, remote participants hear them as though they’re coming from a particular part of the room. Dolby Voice also suppresses background noise, so listeners can focus on who’s talking. Lastly, Dolby Voice provides built-in support for overlapping speakers, eliminating the awkward exchanges that take place when multiple people talk at the same time.

In order to deliver all the benefits of Dolby Voice, the Dolby team also developed the Dolby Conference Phone. Using advanced machine learning, the phone creates a 3D sound model of a room, spatially mapping out and capturing where specific talkers and noise sources are located. This rich spatial rendering is transmitted to remote meeting participants.

With this combination of products, the Dolby team has created conferencing audio that simulates the experience of meeting face to face. This natural audio scene frees the brain to focus on understanding and engaging in conversation rather than unraveling what’s being said and who’s speaking. With meeting attendees able to better hear, participate in and recall conversations, productivity increases, too. In the 2015 study, tasks that took 134 seconds over traditional conferencing audio solutions required just 90 seconds with Dolby Voice and the Dolby Conference Phone.

It’s one thing to read about audio quality. But it’s another thing to hear it. Experience the stunning sound of Dolby Voice and the Dolby Conference Phone.