Feature Article

March 22, 2013

HD Voice, Spatial Audio, and the Four Percent-ers

At Enterprise Connect, BT and Dolby Labs were promoting a new enterprise conferencing service highlighting HD voice and spatial audio. The ability to provide a "3-D" audio experience is intriguing, but so are findings that four percent of the people who tried both vanilla HD voice and the spatial experience actually preferred narrowband. 

Spatial audio has been kicking around for a while. Invoxia's line of Apple dock speakerphone gizmos, the AudiOffice and NVX 610, deliver a spatial sound experience by using a series of speakers (four or eight, depending upon the device) and microphones to intelligently "fill" a room with sound. The company's patent-pending “In Vivo” acoustic technology can present a caller sitting in front of the device with two distinct and virtually (to the ear) separate callers on a three-way conference call, one to the "left" and the other separate and to the right.

Dolby Labs delivers a similar spatial experience with its Dolby Voice conferencing solution. Callers use smartphone and PC soft clients incorporating the DVC (Dolby Video Codec) that communicate with a conference bridge -- basically a server -- with all communication running over SIP.  All the usual suspects are supported: Windows, Mac OS, Android and Apple iOS.

 DVC version one is a proprietary wideband codec able to deliver up to 16 kHz of sound at an average bitrate of 24 kbps.  The company recommends that stereo headphones be used with the soft client to get the full spatial experience, but callers can even use a PSTN bridge to get access to a conference if they have no other means. 

Andrew Border, VP of the Voice Business Group at Dolby, says the experience delivers a much more interactive experience than a traditional multi-party conference bridge where there's a lot of stop-and-go talking.

"A normal conference bridge has a lot of unnatural turn taking," Border said. "The Dolby voice solution provides a lot of dynamic interaction."

In partnership with Dolby, BT will be offering this service to enterprises later this year.  At last year's Enterprise Connect event, Dolby quietly presented its conferencing solution to select companies by invitation only. BT was impressed enough with the demonstration to establish a partnership to deliver the solution to market.

"We believe we will be charging a premium for what we call our bridge rate as compared to our standard rate," said David Stark, VP, Product & Commercial, BT Conferencing. "That said, one of the points to note is the way the solution is built. Lower access cost [via SIP and internet connectivity] should offset any premium. We believe we have the best of both worlds, a higher quality product at an attractive price point for enterprises that will be highly competitive."

BT demonstrations have "absolutely floored" some of its customers by the unique quality of the experience. Stark says there's "real demand, from very large customers" for the service. It helps that the offering is a software and SIP-based solution, as path customers are "already going down."

Wainhouse Research conducted a study commissioned by Dolby on what type of audio people would prefer. One hundred forty four participants were asked to listen to three samples: Narrowband PSTN quality, mono wideband, and a Dolby Voice wideband with spatial audio (stereo). 

And here's where the "4 percent-ers" come in. About two-thirds (64 percent) of the survey group preferred the Dolby spatial sample. Another 27 percent preferred the wideband sample without spatial enhancements, so nine out of 10 survey participants prefer wideband.  However, four percent of participants preferred the narrowband sample over both vanilla wideband and spatial audio.

Border said the survey was relatively limited in scope, with participants asked to be passive listeners. He felt that some more of the narrowband and wideband group would be converts if they had been active participants in working with Dolby audio.

Based upon various anecdotal stories I've heard over the past four years, I think there's more to the story than just having to "try it" in the four percent PSTN audience. Some people just don't "like" the sound of HD voice, to the point of certain customers wanting G.722 taken out of their phones and IP PBXs.

No one has done the research (Polycom? Hello? Or will Dolby beat you?) in why there's a population that doesn't like HD voice. Personality type? Age? Physical? Mental? I don't know, but there's certainly some room for human factors research to be done to determine why and help service providers include/convert those four percent-ers.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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