Hummingbird pioneers 3-D sound for TV ads

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 1:00am

Inside the offices of Hummingbird Productions in Green Hills, audio technicians are hard at work making sounds leap from stereo speakers into the room.

Their mission is to replicate the three-dimensional sound heard in the natural environment on a manmade electronic system. It's a complicated task that requires powerful computer software to create the illusion that the sound is coming from all directions in space.

Though 3-D sound technology is not new - we hear it in today's video games - Hummingbird believes it is pioneering the first application of 3-D in the world of consumer marketing.

If all goes as planned, some TV viewers next month should notice a new intensity and spatial dimension when they listen to a commercial's pumped-up musical track on their regular TV stereo speakers.

"To the best of our knowledge, no one has ever taken what we would commonly refer to as 3-D audio and put it on the air," said Hummingbird founder and president Bob Farnsworth.

Hummingbird has interested a major advertising agency and its national apparel client in using the new sound technology in a commercial. The client, who wishes to remain anonymous pending final approval of the advertisement, is planning to launch the commercial on television this summer, Farnsworth said.

Hummingbird is confident enough in its new application that it is presenting its work to the American Advertising Federation when it holds its annual conference June 4-7 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.

Though Hummingbird does a lot of film scoring, the advertising industry has been its bread and butter for the more than 28 years it's been in business. A five-time Clio advertising award winner, the company has developed a reputation by creating sound for numerous commercials, including the famous award-winning Budweiser frogs.

While on-air broadcasts do use surround-sound capabilities, Farnsworth said the consumer base for 3-D stereo is much broader. Nearly 71 percent of the 248 million televisions in U.S. households are equipped with stereo speakers, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

For the past three months, Farnsworth and his staff have been working with a physicist, Russell Sherwood of Eagle Audio EKSC in Kansas, to fine-tune the 3-D sound.

Microphones and other audio gear are used to record sounds in a different way than for the normal stereo mix, Farnsworth and Sherwood explained. But the key to the technology lies not in the hardware, but in writing software to mimic the way in which the brain perceives the placement of sound.

The brain takes cues from the variations in a sound - including its original source and the reflections off the surrounding obstacles, such as walls - and assigns a placement to the sound.

Sherwood uses a powerful digital single processor (DSP) to manipulate the timing, energy and frequency of sounds to fake the brain into thinking the sound is reflected from a variety of positions in the room, not just from the two stereo speakers.

"If we can do this artificially inside the DSP, then the brain will believe these walls exist and assign a location for the sound that is not where the sound is coming from," Sherwood said.

It's not a perfect science yet. Though the process works well for sound effects, developing music for a commercial is more of a challenge, Sherwood concedes. He said not everybody hears the difference of 3-D, so the hope is that he and the Hummingbird staff can arrive at a result that at least half of the people hearing it can perceive as different.

"If we don't have a situation where a high percentage of the people can perceive it, it's not commercially viable. And that's what we're trying to do, is get on the other side of commercially viable," Sherwood said.

Farnsworth said his excitement about the commercial applications of the new technology ranks a nine on a scale of one to 10 - right up there with the Budweiser frogs commercial. But he won't believe it until he hears it.

"When it clears the bank for us is when we actually hear this stuff on the air. We'll say, 'We've done something nobody's ever done.'"

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