Fraunhofer IIS shows latest audio and video developments at CES 2019

Germany’s Fraunhofer IIS (Institute for Integrated Circuits) is demonstrating advances made in its media laboratories with an emphasis on next generation audio at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas on January 8 to 11 2019. There are debuts for the first commercially available MPEG-H-enabled 3D soundbars, Sonamic Loudness for car stereos, the xHE-AAC audio codec natively supported in Android, and upHear Voice Quality Enhancement for improved speech recognition on smart devices.

Fraunhofer IIS, part of the larger Fraunhofer Society with 72 institutes around Germany, has played a major role in development of the ISO/IEC MPEG-H 3D Audio standard first defined in 2013. The standard was developed to enable more advanced objected based surround sound by breaking the audio associated with video into one of three object types. These are audio channels, audio objects and higher order ambisonics (HOA), the latter defining full 3D surround sound within a sphere centered on the listener, allowing speakers to be placed above and below as well as on all sides at the same level.

As such, object-based sound in general and ambisonics in particular have yet to gain significant traction because being dependent on purchase of sophisticated surround systems with multiple speakers they have been confined largely to hi-fi enthusiasts. But Fraunhofer believes that progress with MPEG-H and associated standards is brining next generation audio within reach of more consumers, especially car-based systems where the speakers are in-built anyway.

MPEG-H 3D Audio can support up to 64 loudspeaker channels and 128 codec core channels. Objects can be used alone or in combination with channels or HOA components, allowing for interactivity or personalization of a program by adjusting the gain or position of the objects during rendering in the MPEG-H decoder.

Fraunhofer IIS was first to demonstrate a real time MPEG-H 3D audio encoder in September 2014 just before it became an international standard in February 2015. Then in January 2017, Fraunhofer IIS announced a trademark program to identify interoperable products that incorporate MPEG-H, setting the stage for commercialization.

The first commercially available soundbars with MPEG-H support being shown at CES 2019 are designed to highlight how the standard can improve the experience for mainstream consumers with off the shelf TVs and not just hi-fi devotees. As Fraunhofer pointed out, MPEG-H Audio was the first next-generation audio system deployed in a regular terrestrial 4K TV service, having been on air in South Korea since the launch of its UHDTV system in May 2017. As well as providing immersive sound, MPEG-H Audio enables viewers to personalize a program’s audio mix, for example by switching between different languages, enhancing dialogue or adjusting the volume of the commentator.

In a key parallel step Fraunhofer has also developed its upHear Immersive Audio Virtualizer, on show at CES 2019, to enhance the experience of soundbars by supporting the rendering of 3D audio content as well as the upmix of legacy surround or stereo audio. Its key benefit is that through sophisticated signal analysis it allows 3D audio soundbars to provide at least some of the full immersive sound experience without need for satellite surround speakers, therefore increasing the mainstream appeal. Current approaches to play back of immersive sound in living rooms require overhead loudspeakers in addition to the legacy surround setups, with additional wiring as well as a need for specialized knowledge to install correctly.

Fraunhofer’s approach at present requires device-specific tuning by its sound engineers and consultancy regarding hardware specifications. This is a slight handicap so that a future objective could be to automate this process around its signal processing algorithms.

The other notable Fraunhofer exhibit at CES 2019 is its Sonamic Loudness designed specifically for automotive audio. This aims to maintain consistent loudness levels and dynamics when switching between radio stations or media sources. That is a significant development given that increasingly it is in their cars rather than living rooms that many consumers have their most sophisticated audio systems given that multiple speakers often come with the vehicle, at least as optional extras or in upmarket models.

Development of Sonamic Loudness control was also motivated by the significant increase in number of in-car media sources., including USB sticks, MP3 players and smartphones in the car. Each audio source produces different levels of volume, which otherwise the driver must adjust.

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