Mobile World Congress 2018: Audio is Almost Getting the Attention it Deserves

MWC2018.jpg

The 2018 Mobile World Congress has come and gone. Dirac was in attendance once again this year, and we left the event filled with a very promising feeling. And not at all thanks to the weather—which turned out to be the worst ever since we started attending the event back in 2006—but thanks to all the great people we had the pleasure of meeting, along with the equally great meetings we held with partners, journalists, and potential customers. 

Innovation in the mobile industry is shelving out for the time being, and that leaves room for the sadly neglected area of audio.

Among the various insights and impressions collected this year, one thing is for certain: The Mobile World Congress is now drawing attention beyond the typical mobile/smartphone focus it’s been historically known for. This year, visitors could experience a mix of VR products, smart cars, a growing presence of AR in the form of augmented reality glasses, 5G and, of course, the biggest smartphone OEMs on the market. In the coming years we can expect to see many revolutionary and life changing technologies making their way down the pipeline—including AI, IoT, and AR, each of which are generating a lot of buzz. Yet, it looks as though it’ll be a few years yet before we really see it happening, with the deployment of 5G likely being the most important breakthrough. 

Innovation in the mobile industry is shelving out for the time being, and that leaves room for the sadly neglected area of audio. Despite Dirac’s position as one of the biggest players when it comes to mobile audio—and the fact that Dirac audio technologies have been adopted by leading Chinese smartphone manufacturers such as Xiaomi, OPPO, Huawei, OnePlus and Smartisan—we still think that audio has been largely underestimated within the mobile industry.

This year at MWC, we witnessed the promise of change. In the wake of iPhone and Pixel, stereo speakers are becoming a standard feature for premium smartphones.

This year at MWC, we witnessed the promise of change. In the wake of iPhone and Pixel, stereo speakers are becoming a standard feature for premium smartphones. We saw Samsung launching the Galaxy S9 with stereo speakers “tuned by AKG” and Dolby Atmos as key selling points. Motorola demonstrated their attachable speaker (one of the moto mods) for their smartphones which uses Dirac Panorama Sound to create an immersive listening experience for users.  Sony displayed their new flagship phone Xperia XZ2 with stereo speakers as a main selling point. While Huawei showed off their MediaPad M5’s quad speakers with “monster sound” and “no distortion!” As for us, we demonstrated Dirac’s latest immersive audio solutions for stereo speakers and array speakers—the result of a collaboration with our strategic partner and world leader in micro speakers, AAC technologies. The feedback we received from journalists and potential customers was extremely positive. 

Inevitably, the sound level on the showroom floor didn’t allow us to seriously judge the audio performance of most of the devices displayed. However, there was one exception: LG had a silenced “Hi-Fi Audio Lab” booth, which they had built to demo the advantage of their Quad DAC from ESS. Clearly, with our technologies being integrated into 200 million smartphones annually, we are not alone in this industry when it comes to grappling with the challenge of selling something as abstract and subjective as “good sound quality.” 

Headphones are also showing promise. It was interesting to see innovative designs for headphones and earbuds that, in different ways, let users hear ambient sound together with audio playback—which is necessary in order for the AR user case to take off. The models ranged from sealed, in-ear designs that actively enhance your hearing through microphone array processing and noise cancellation, to in-ear designs that only partially cover your ear canal thereby letting the ambient sound in, to completely open designs with small speakers beaming the sound to your ears.  The trend is in line with our latest innovations within AR and VR. We displayed our latest AR audio solution for AR glasses and the award-winning Dirac VR technology for VR games and headsets.  

All in all, it was great to finally see audio getting the appreciation it has been lacking for quite some time. This is not only driven by smartphone OEMs, smart speaker introduction, etc., but also by new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality—which is clearly growing. To quote Al Pacino from Godfather 3, “Once I thought I was out, they pulled me back in again!”

- Erik Rudolphi, General Manager at Dirac Research

- Lars Isaksson, General Manager/Business Director at Dirac Research