Why Apple Talking About Stereo and Spatial Audio Matters

When Apple announced the release of the iPhone 8 and iPhone X a couple days ago, wow-factor features like wireless charging and facial recognition stole the show. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the first event ever to be held at the Steve Jobs Theater on Apple’s revamped campus in Cupertino was the utterance of a single phrase: spatial audio.

Wait, what? More revolutionary than a “Super Retina” display that supports HDR in Dolby Vision? Well, yeah. Hear us out.

With the release of each new iPhone up to the 6 series, Apple announced new and improved camera features with great fanfare, while leaving the iPhone’s lackluster audio quality as is. That began to change with the iPhone 7, when Apple made the leap from mono to stereo playback. The iPhone 7 utilized the bottom speaker in conjunction with a balanced earphone on the device, which was a huge — if long overdue — upgrade. And yet, at the release event, Apple mentioned its new stereo setup as if in passing. The iPhone’s vastly improved audio was undersold.

Fast forward to a couple days ago when the iPhone 8’s new stereo speakers — which are 25% louder and offer deeper bass than those of the iPhone 7 — received their very own slide.

In a tech world obsessed with image, that one slide represents a validating step for the rising importance of sound. Apple has finally recognized that even its most loyal cross-platform customers require an assurance that the audio quality on their iPhones is improving right alongside the video. Indeed, Apple’s big-ticket event reveals more than just the company’s latest slate of sleek consumer tech — it is also a barometer of consumer expectations.

And then Apple surpassed those expectations by demonstrating how that new stereo speaker system works in concert with the company’s new ARKit, which enables developers to create augmented reality experiences. Augmented reality is a technology that superimposes virtual objects — both images and sounds — on to the real world. Even if the term is new to you, you’re already familiar with AR thanks to the hit game Pokemon GO.

The fastest game to top the App Store relied on mobile GPS and 2D camera overlays to enable players to locate and capture virtual Pokemon in their immediate (real-world) vicinity. But with the advent of ARKit, iPhone users will soon be exploring a much wider range of highly interactive AR experiences through advanced tracking and imaging systems — experiences which, unlike Pokemon Go, take advantage of immersive spatial audio.

In one of the highlights of this year’s event, the team behind Shanghai-based Directive Games stepped on stage to demonstrate their new tank battle game, The Machines. The game took place on an ordinary tabletop with a futuristic virtual battlefield superimposed on top of it. “You are not just controlling the game,” CEO Atli Mar explained as his Directive partner moved around the table, firing away. “You are in the game.”

And that feeling of immersion isn’t just the product of what you see, but also what you hear.

“If you go closer to the action, the sound increases, and if a solid object gets between you and the action, the sound is occluded perfectly. With the stereo speakers on the new iPhone, this is truly amazing.”

The Machines is just one of countless games coming to the App Store that support spatial audio — which requires, at minimum, a two speaker stereo system. Spatial audio gives sound direction. With two speakers, you can shift that sound to left and right. Sure, in the hierarchy of immersive audio technologies, this one falls somewhere near the bottom. There are much more immersive forms of audio out there, including binaural audio, which captures sound not just from side-to-side but also in front of you and behind you to create a lifelike 360-degree soundscape. (And don’t even get us started on ambisonics…) Still, the fact that Apple is even talking about spatial audio at its biggest event of year qualifies as a huge victory for those of us who know what’s next.

While the iPhone 8 and iPhone X enable stereo playback, they still don’t offer stereo recording. But we’ve seen this pattern play out before with the introduction of other new audiovisual technologies. (Would anyone have bought an HD camera before seeing what an image looked like on an HD TV?) Apple just introduced the masses to spatial audio via playback functionality. As soon as we’ve become familiar with it, Apple will doubtlessly bestow us with tools for creating it.

Apple has always been pretty good at keeping up with themselves and updating products as soon as everyone has become used to them, so one can only help but wonder how long it will take them to give use actual tools to create spatial audio with. Who knows, that could even be something that they are already working on. We will only know when they want us to.

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