Next Generation TV to Offer Expanded Audio Functionality For All Devices

The ATSC continues its work on the next-generation television standard, known as ATSC 3.0. The committee is now looking for ways to deliver an immersive audio experience in the form of multiple channels which enable consumers to focus on specific “objects” or audio elements within content.

The ATSC has now issued a Call for Proposals for a comprehensive audio system that offers offering a more immersive audio experience for living room and mobile viewers. Initial responses were due in January.

At present three audio technology pioneers, Dolby Laboratories and DTS, and another from a group made up of Technicolor, Fraunhofer and Qualcomm are vying for inclusion into the final ATSC standard. All of their respective “sub-systems” meet the criteria provide an enhanced feature set that improves upon the capabilities of the current broadcast digital television audio system (5.1 or 7.1 multichannel audio).

All of the proposals now before the ATSC committee is said to incorporate object-based audio capability that makes it possible for the systems to highlight a specific element within a scene and deliver access to those elements as part of an ATSC 3.0 broadcast. [Current DTV sets and surround sound audio systems will not be compatible with the new ATSC 3.0 spec.]

“At this point the notion of more than 7.1 speakers in someone’s home theater is a bit optimistic, but the goal is to bring this immersive experience that 4KTV provides to the listening environment in a way that is attainable by lots of people,” said Robert Reams, an audio scientist with Psyx Research. “We know the high-end audiophile will embrace this quality sounds, but in order for it to be successful commercially, it has to trickle down and be affordable and practical to the average consumer. It will certainly take time, but this industry is capable of developing technology to make immersive sound attainable for all.”

Mark Richer, president of the ATSC, said this new system would provide the listener with both a personalized and an immersive experience. “Personalization includes enhancement to the control of dialog, use of alternate audio tracks and mixing of assistive audio services, other-language dialog, special commentary, and music and effects,” he said. “Plus, the system will support both the normalization of content loudness and contouring of dynamic range, based on the specific capabilities of a user’s fixed or mobile device and its unique sound environment.”

ATSC 3.0 audio is being designed to work with home theater AV systems, with television sets (both with and without “soundbar” audio systems), and also with personal audio systems such as tablets, smartphones and other handheld devices used both with and without headphones. The level of the immersive audio experience may vary depending on the platform in use. Several companies have already demonstrated new types of personal headphones that leverage this new “object-based” listening.

The group that includes Fraunhofer has proposed an “intermediate step,” whereby a consumer could add just four additional speakers overhead to an existing 5.1 surround sound system and, using its new MPEG-H codec, get a vastly improved audio listening experience.

“We’re talking about allowing the viewer not just to watch a program, but to actually take part in it and feel like they are in that environment,” said Poppy Crum, a scientists with Dolby Labs. “We’ve reached a point where designers and mixers are looking at content in terms of objects, not channels. It makes the perception of the screen wider and brings the viewer into a scene like never before. Of course, different people will have different perspectives on what systems of the future should be, but we all agree it will include more tools for the sound designer and a better experience for the viewer and listener.”

Standardization work on ATSC 3.0 spec could be completed by the end of 2016, when it would face a vote by the ATSC membership. The group has unofficially said they hope to begin real-world deployments by 2018.

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