Michael Finneran
Michael F. Finneran, President of dBrn Associates, Inc. is a consultant and industry analyst specializing in wireless, mobile unified communications,...
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Michael Finneran | January 25, 2012 |


Dolby Demos an "Ear Opening" Technology for Audio Conferencing

Dolby Demos an "Ear Opening" Technology for Audio Conferencing What will sell this is the recognition that better sound means better and more productive conferences.

What will sell this is the recognition that better sound means better and more productive conferences.

Much has been written about the wonders of high-definition telepresence systems for video teleconferencing, but the vast majority of the working world spends far more time on audio conferences than they do on video conferences. Unfortunately, with the exception of marginally better conference phones and wideband audio, no one has done much to inch the sound quality for audio conferencing above what we’ve had on the public telephone network for the past hundred years.

Wideband codecs like G.722 can increase the audio bandwidth (i.e. the range of frequencies reproduced), but that does nothing to address problems like noisy drops, uneven sound levels, or background noise that do so much to make many audio conferences an experience in frustration. For organizations that increasingly depend on audio conferences a key part of doing business, you're not boosting productivity when users are so isolated they turn on speakerphone, mute the microphone, and pick up the Wall Street Journal.

Enter Dolby Laboratories, who is now using their pioneering audio technology to deliver a type of audio conferencing the likes of which you have never heard. At IBM’s Lotusphere in Orlando, Dolby offered analysts a demonstration of an as yet "unnamed" technology called simply the "Dolby audio conferencing solution", and the difference was striking.

While virtually everyone has heard of Dolby and knows they have something to do with high quality sound, understanding is a little cloudy beyond that. The Dolby logo appears at the end of every movie you see and on the bottom of every home stereo, game player, and mobile electronic device you buy that is capable of producing sound.

The key to Dolby's business is that they do not make consumer products, but rather they license their technology to the people who capture and reproduce the sound (that's why there’s a Dolby logo on your iPad). That technology was first adopted in the recording and motion picture industries, but has now been adopted in the gaming industry as well. Dolby's first product was Type A Dolby Noise Reduction, a compandor designed to eliminate the "hiss" in audio tape recording. Their real growth came with technology to improve the audio quality of motion pictures; Stanley Kubrick’s "A Clockwork Orange" was the first movie produced with Dolby sound.

According to Dr. Mike Hollier, Vice President-Voice Platforms for Dolby, the Dolby audio conferencing solution is made up of a conferencing server and a softphone client that can run on either a Windows or a Mac PC. While Dolby doesn’t describe it this way, the four major enhancements they can be categorized as:

* Wideband, Natural-Sounding Codec
* Ambient/Channel Induced Noise Cancellation
* Automatic Level-Adjusting Full Duplex Audio Bridging
* Spatial Sound Environment

Let's take a look at what's involved in each of these.

Wideband Natural-Sounding Codec
Anyone who has studied the physics of the telephone network will know that it was a design based on compromise. The human ear can detect frequencies in the range of 20 Hz-20,000 Hz, yet to maximize the number of "acceptable quality" channels they could carry, a traditional G.711 telephone codec filters out the frequencies above about 3100 Hz. Newer wideband codecs like G.722 capture and reproduce frequencies up to about 7,000 Hertz. Both of these codec standards require a 64 Kbps digital channel, though the wideband G.722.2 Adaptive Multi-Rate Wideband (AMR-WB) standard can get that bit rate down as low as 16 Kbps.

Dolby's codec reproduces natural-sounding human speech at frequencies up to around 8,000 Hertz with a bit rate around 40 Kbps with the ability to go higher if needed.

Ambient/Channel Induced Noise Cancellation
Nothing is more tedious on an audio conference than a noisy drop or a participant who is calling in from a noisy location. In the Dolby solution, the bridge that mixes the audio streams together can detect and cancel either channel noise or ambient noise at any location. In the demo, one of the participants was seated next to a TV set that was blaring the Giants-Packers football game, and none of that background noise could be heard by any of the other users.


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