A startup called Spatial presents its first series of products today, focusing on creating audio experiences that are immersive, interactive and automatically generated. The products themselves are a bit complicated to explain, but the result is simple: ambient and interactive sound for public spaces that are easy to create and more dynamic than the usual tracks.
Although Spatial has a consumer offering, the most likely customers will be companies. Think hotels that want a different sound experience in the lobby, theme parks that want to develop sound for their rooms faster, brand activation or AR experiences (National Geographic is an investor). Think about how corny the canned sound in the zoo often is; Spatial wants to fix it.
In a demo a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a room hearing the sounds of a forest around me, with birds chirping in one place and then moving to another ̵
It is honestly nothing special: sound placed in the room is simple. What is complex is the engine that created all that sound. Spatial’s goal is to make it easy to design custom sound for a room and also to make the sound happen generatively instead of on a loop or a track. There are three main pieces.
First up is Spatial Studio, a Mac app that is a kind of unholy fusion of Logic and Unreal Engine. It defines a 3D room where users can place audio objects – either sounds they have created themselves or retrieved from Spatial’s library. Users can even pipe in live sound as an object – say if they want to bring the sound from the nearby ocean up into the lobby or just drive a Sonos stream.
The special thing about Spatial is that these sound objects have behavior. A bird can move along a predetermined track (by some chance so that it does not get boring), or for example, a seawater can occur at certain times of the day. These sound objects can also react – either to each other or to something happening in the real room.
The second part of the Spatial system turns all dynamic sound objects into actual sound that you can hear in a room. For that, it uses the Mac mini (or, for business customers, Linux) to run a real-time audio engine called Spatial Reality. It will take input from different sensors if necessary, or just let the small sound world go its own way – and since things in the small sound world have different behavior, it will sound different all the time. Spatial has also created an iPhone app for more direct interaction.
You think the third part is the speakers, but that’s actually Spatial’s third trick: it can work with any speaker setup. Spatial’s motor acts as an abstraction layer that is aware of the position of the speakers in the room and automatically adjusts the sound to ensure correct 3D positioning of the sound. Instead of a strict set of placement rules, Spatial can work with what you have.
Michael Plitkins, one of the co-founders, tells me that he basically believes that putting sound on a static track is backwards. It is better, he says, to let the computers find out in real time based on what they know about the speaker system. As the product stands right now, Spatial does not bother to tune the sound in the room in real time. It works with all speaker setups, but users need to program what they have in the Spatial Studio app.
Initially, Spatial’s main competition is a combination of Muzak for public spaces and the custom tools Disney Imagineers uses for sound in theme parks. It may also appeal to some hobbyists – part of the inspiration for the company was Plitkin’s desire to create a soundscape in his own backyard. I had a demo of that room as well, complete with cave sounds under the deck so authentic that it was creepy.
Wherever customers end up, it will probably not be easy to sell. (And launching a product that is primarily intended for public spaces while a pandemic is still going on is another challenge.) Dynamically created rain and birdsong sounds no different than a static soundtrack if you just listen for a few minutes.
But during a long interview in a conference room where the team explained the contents and details of their product, they turned off the cabin in the sound of a forest theme that had played gently all the time. The silence was strangely stressful, as conference rooms usually are.