A Huge Little Thing at NAB

Last month, I spent a fascinating and enlightening few days at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Convention in Las Vegas – the biggest broadcast–related gathering in the world.

Every year, there are many exciting and interesting new developments. This year, my favourite thing was small and subtle, but packed full of potential. It’s related to Next Generation Audio.

For you, as a consumer, there are two main benefits provided by next generation audio – immersive audio and personalised audio. Personalised audio is my focus here.

Personalised audio lets you, the consumer, manipulate a programme’s audio. Rather than listening to a static mix as you do now, certain audio elements are delivered to you separately, allowing you to interact with each of them individually. You could, for example, change the language of the dialogue, or choose which elements to listen to. When watching a sports event, you could potentially choose to listen to just the home crowd or just the away crowd. You can add and remove elements and change their balance. You don't need to worry about messing up – at any time you can press a button and set everything back to default, just as the mixer intended.

This could be an availability heuristic, but it seems that many recent complaints about audio on television appear to be regarding low dialogue intelligibility (I’d love to see some data on this if anyone has any). Personalised audio can help with this by giving you control over the level of dialog independently from the rest of the audio content – the ambience, the music, the effects. Yes, the audio should be balanced correctly in the first place, but if you have trouble hearing the dialog, just turn it up – or turn everything else down. 

This ability alone seems so important to me, and I'm convinced it will be very popular and well used by a lot of people. But a problem with all new technologies is in clearly communicating the benefits that the new technologies offer to the people who will use them. 

At NAB, I think there was a big and important step in that direction, in a subtle but very clever way. 

At the ATSC 3.0 Consumer Experience, Dolby occupied a small room, decorated to look and feel like a living room. They had a range of video and audio content to show off all the wonderful features that their new technologies will provide. 

There were demonstrations of immersive audio, making use of a soundbar rather than multiple speakers, high dynamic range, and personalised audio. They were demonstrating how to naivgate the simple on-screen menus to make use of all the new features.

In the section about personalised audio, we were shown how to use the on-screen menus to enable Dialogue Enhancement – a wonderful option that increases the level of the dialogue, and reduces the level of everything else. It made a profound difference to the clarity of the dialogue, compared to the original and already well–balanced content.

Then, someone pressed a single button on the remote. A button reserved solely to toggle dialogue enhancement on and off – and that’s when it all fell into place.

You might imagine a correlation between those who are responsible for many of the complaints about intelligibility and those who are less technically literate. I think there are probably a lot of technically literate people who are also making complaints, but for the sake of this piece – these people might be unlikely to discover functions hidden in menus. Even if they do discover such functions, they may be more likely to forget how to get back there later. But, show someone a button on the remote that with one press makes their favourite show much easier to hear – that’s a stroke of genius right out of the Jobsian playbook. 

  1. Clearly identify and understand a problem
  2. Develop an insanely simple solution
  3. Come up with a way to demonstrate a solution that goes beyond everyone’s expectations in how refreshingly easy it is to use

With a single press of the dialogue enhancement button, you hear the effect immediately. The function is clearly labelled and easy to find, maybe right next to the volume buttons on the remote. Even if you forget about it, you’re very likely to discover it again. Anyone who can change the volume of their TV can use this. 

Importantly, this is a clear and powerful feature that may help to drive sales of new consumer hardware. I don’t have any data, but anecdotally it seems consumers in general lack understanding of improvements in resolution, frame rate, dynamic range, and immersive audio, and are not given simple, clear, and compelling reasons to spend their money. Personalised audio is compelling, and offers lots of easily understandable and demonstrable benefits.

While I’m very excited about the extra potential of personalised audio in general, and there's a much wider subject of object based audio in general, helping to solve the issue of dialogue intelligibility alone makes all the work to create and implement this worthwhile. I’m looking forward to the creative new ideas we’ll see in the years to come.