CES 2017 Highlights, as Experienced from the Dirac Suite

It’s hard not to write something after returning from an event like CES, which leaves you with so many inputs and impressions, it nearly blows your mind. The entire place is so packed with innovations and ideas, it's like the entire world’s waited all year just to reveal what they've been busy hatching up in the seclusion of their basement. 

I won’t attempt to recap everything that was presented during the show, but instead share a few things that particularly stood out for us.

 

1. Automotive 

Self-driving cars, and more self-driving cars. For those of us working in the infotainment industry, what are we to do with our time when we don’t have to drive any more? Harman did a great demo where they used all the windows of a car as projector-driven screens. The audience could enjoy video and sound in a truly nice environment. Harman used Dirac Unison in this demo, of course. Others did similar things and, as a Dirac person, it comforts me to know that everyone considered good sound to be a central component— even expanding it to sound bigger than the car itself, with surround sound playing a big part (and in that space, Dirac is still number one).

Electric cars. It was a big thing. Though rumors say hydrogen will soon be making a strong entrance into the space. However the car moves forward, there is a distinct need to get the most sound out of the car with as little electrical consumption as possible. This is the challenge to meet in 2017, and there are plenty of ways to do it. Dirac has the necessary experience from the mobile phone market—but, to be fair, it's the speaker and amplifier companies that have the major consumption problems to fix.

The most awe-striking demo in car audio was a demo in a Fiat 500 that used Dirac Panorama Sound. A speaker array on the dashboard and a detachable sub in the trunk was all it took to fill the car with powerful, immersive sound. The sound quality was so impressive, car manufacturers were searching everywhere for hidden speakers—in the doors, under the dashboard, all over. 

2. Home audio 

Emotiva, Arcam, and ThetaDigital all demoed Dirac Live in their suites. Performing demos using the on/off technique is always good proof that without room correction a system can cost a fortune and still sound bad. With Dirac Live, the audio performance was just awesome, and, with the room out of the equation, the uniqueness of each system could truly be appreciated. 

3. VR 

A lot of VR/AR companies dropped by our suite to check out our new VR audio technology and, in turn, we got to take a closer look at some of their stuff. Notable experiences include the physical audio technology we saw from SubPac, several very interesting hearables, new players in VR/AR helmets, and headphones that are now getting smart. It was good to see that that the whole VR industry is acknowledging the need for better sound. The big chip companies (you know which ones I’m talking about) were clearly very serious about VR/AR sound too. 

Out on the big showroom floor, there was a dedicated Virtual Reality area where you could check out all kinds of solutions related to VR and AR, including 360° video cameras—some with stereoscopic imaging and sound capturing—as well as 360° still cameras with no sound at all. We also witnessed outside-in video capturing that lets you relive your most memorable moments from any place inside VR (still without realistic sound, though); smart headphones that reduce noise, enhance speech, and zoom or focus your hearing, approaching and somewhat going beyond the functionality and purpose of the hearing aid; VR headphones from a variety of brands; and a lot of offerings from companies crowdfunding their products on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the like. Another highlight from the showroom floor was the presence of more and more 3D scanning devices that let you scan everything from your ear canal to your entire body. You can get a virtual 3D copy of whatever you want, and for whatever reason. Why not 3D-print a miniature model of your children as a gift to decorate their grandparents’ fireplace, instead of a flat, boring portrait? Or why not have a new pair of in-ear headphones custom made by Snugs to fit your ear canals perfectly?

 

Activities in Our Own Suites

And, as for our rooms, we had two suites. In one we held meetings and in the other we performed five different demos, including:

  • One regular Dirac Live demo—but wait, there was nothing regular about it. Thanks to our collaboration with Stream Unlimited we demoed Dirac Live controlled and run via a smartphone app. For the first time ever we could demonstrate what is coming to be the standard in 2017. PCs will no longer be the primary way of bringing Dirac technology into your home. We have received plenty of feedback from customers regarding the limitations of PC-controlled room correction, so this is our response— special thanks for all support during the development of Stream Unlimited! Expect AVR customers to adopt this implementation soon.
  • Dirac Room Calibration in collaboration with OPPO digital and Analog Devices (ADI), where everything is controlled on a smartphone as well. Dirac Room Calibration is especially developed to fit inside wireless speakers, and is optimized to be used by inexperienced users who still want to get the best performance out of their system. It’s a guided user experience with great results. This technology has several real implementations which will be coming out to consumers over the course of 2017.
  • Dirac HD Sound. This is a classic that we dusted off from previous demos. Using transparent speakers without padding and with a low-cost hardware solution and minimal processing capabilities, we showed that it is possible to get good performance out of poor conditions. The technology has already been out on the market for a couple of years and can be found in several consumer products.
  • Dirac Power Sound and Dirac Panorama Sound. These technologies, developed for small Bluetooth speakers and smart devices with at least two speakers, get high output and stereo widening out of small devices. After the demo we had a line of customers waiting to get the technologies put into their devices.
  • Dirac VR. We showcased VR in an unprecedented way—not in the kaboom sort of way, with helicopters flying around your head, but by producing real, high-end audio in a virtual room. The result was just amazing, and we realized how good the technology really is. We let journalists and industry professionals listen to a virtual studio over headphones using our new positional audio technology, and then compare it with real studio monitors. It was good fun to witness listener reactions. I’ve never had so much fun during demos. Someone asked if there was a problem with the headphones because all he could hear was the speaker sitting on the desk in front of him. Well, it was actually the headphones playing… Others just flat out laughed. Someone tried to rotate their head as fast as possible to detect any time lag. Hilarious… A unique aspect of our technology is that you can rotate or tilt your head in any direction without it affecting the sound localization or sound quality, so there was a lot of neck-breaking gymnastics going on to test our assertions. Fortunately, we never had to call for an ambulance.

It was great to hear others confirm that we are a step ahead the competition in this emerging field. Sound quality will be much more important in VR than in most other applications. The industry has clearly realized this by now, and are on the lookout for technology like ours which takes VR sound to another level.  We have our hands full now. 

 

- Niklas Thorin, General Manager BU High Performance at Dirac Research