MEX 2013: Will We Be Hearing More from Mobile Audio Interfaces?

digital-intern.jpgCould games like Papa Sangre pave the way for other mobile audio experiences?

The tech lovers at last week’s MEX Mobile User Experience conference in London were treated to all manner of fantastical visions of our further mobile empowered futures; big data, connected cars, smart homes, Internet of Things, gestural interfaces, personal mini-drones—the lot.

Few presentation this year will be complete without at least passing reference to the game changing nature or dystopian social implications of soon-to-be-unleashed Google Glass. Surprisingly, however, a couple of jaw-dropping demonstrations were enough to leave many of those attending wondering whether we might be missing a slightly quieter revolution taking hold. Could immersive audio be about to come of age in mobile user experience?

Having played second fiddle to the visual interface for decades, being so often the reserve of experimental art installations or niche concepts for the blind, audio has yet to find mass interaction application outside of alarms, alerts, ringtones and the occasional novelty bottle opener. All of this, however, could be set to change, if the two fields of binaural sound and dynamic music can find their way into the repertoire of interaction designers.

Binaural Audio Spatializes Interaction

Hardly a new phenomenon (though not always well known), Papa Sangre is regarded as the ‘best video game with no video ever made.’ Since it’s release back in 2011, the audio app game for iOS has been a hit with both the visually impaired and fully sighted. The game plunges players into a dark, monster-infested fantasy with only their ears to navigate the three dimensional underworld and rescue the damsel in distress. The incredible 3D sound effects are achieved with headphones and binaural audio—an effect that replicates the experience of hearing a sound-wave originating from a certain direction, hitting one ear before the other. Use of the screen is disconcertingly limited to only a rudimentary compass-like dial (determining the player’s virtual direction of movement) and two feet buttons, pressed to take steps into the darkness. Never has a computer game monster been so terrifying than when you can’t actually see it.

papasangre_screen2.pngIn the dark: screenshot of immersive audio game PapaSangre

The creators, London-based SomethinElse, developed the game by first mapping out the experiences of sound from hundreds of directions using a binaural microphone—a stereo mic the exact shape and density of a human head with pick-ups for ear drums. The algorithmic engine this produced could then be put to work transforming any ordinary mono audio into a spacialised, stereo output for listeners wearing headphones (with a fair dose of clever coding, of course).

MEX_binaural_mic.pngBinaural microphone with exact dimension and density as human head


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