Today the US Patent & Trademark Office published a key patent application from Apple that relates to a system and method for controlling the directivity of dialogue channels separate from music and effects channels in a piece of sound program content for movies and television. To understand the importance of this invention long term for Apple, you have to know the inventor that is now the Audio Director at Apple.
Apple's audio director is none other than Tomlinson M. Holman who is an American film theorist, audio engineer, and inventor of film technologies, notably the Lucasfilm THX sound system. He developed the world's first '10.2 sound system,' and now he's working on a new advanced sound system for Apple.
Naturally the question that's not answered in this patent filing is where and how will Apple bring this technology to market. In one patent point Apple notes that "the listening area may be a room within a house or a commercial establishment or an outdoor area (e.g., an amphitheater). That last point is very interesting considering that Apple's future flagship store in Milan is to incorporate and amphitheater, as noted in our cover graphic. More than likely the new sound system will be put to the test at this future location which will make the introduction of the amphitheater in Milan all that more exciting to see unfold.
With rumors of Apple working on a smart TV system for years now and with more recent rumors hinting of a new Apple Music TV-like service being close to being finalized (along with a new icon or logo being revealed in a trademark report yesterday), today's invention is all the more important long term.
Apple notes that sound program content, including movies and television shows, are often composed of several distinct audio components, including dialogue of characters/actors, music and sound effects. Each of these component parts called stems may include multiple spatial channels and are mixed together prior to delivery to a consumer.
For example, a production company may mix a 5.1 channel dialogue stream or stem, a 5.1 music stream, and a 5.1 effects stream into a single master 5.1 audio mix or stream. This master stream may thereafter be delivered to a consumer through a recordable medium (e.g., DVD or Blu-ray) or through an online streaming service.
Although mixing dialogue, music, and effects to form a single master mix or stream is convenient for purposes of distribution, this process often results in poor audio reproduction for the consumer.
For example, intelligibility of dialogue may become an issue because the dialogue component for a piece of sound program content must be played back using the same settings as music and effects components since each of these components are unified in a single master stream.
Dialogue intelligibility has become a growing and widely perceived problem, especially amongst movies played through television sets where dialogue may be easily lost amongst music and effects.
Solution: Directivity Optimized Sound Reproduction
Apple's invention relates to an audio system that receives a piece of sound program content for playback from a content distribution system. The piece of sound program content may include multiple components or stems. For example, the piece of sound program content may include a multi-channel dialogue signal, a multi-channel music signal, and a multi-channel effects signal. In one embodiment, the multi-channel music signal may be combined or mixed with the multi-channel effects signal to form a combined multi-channel music and effects signal.
In one embodiment, the audio system or the content distribution system may determine a first set of directivity patterns for the multi-channel dialogue signal and a second set of directivity patterns for the combined multi-channel music and effects signal.
Each of the directivity patterns in the first and second sets of directivity patterns may be characterized by a directivity index. The directivity index of a beam pattern defines the ratio of sound emitted at a target (e.g., a listener) in comparison to sound emitted generally into a listening area.
In one embodiment, the first set of directivity patterns associated with channels of the dialogue signal have higher directivity indexes than the second set of directivity patterns associated with corresponding channels of the combined music and effects signal.
By associating dialogue components with a higher directivity than music and effects components, the system increases the intelligibility of dialogue for a piece of sound program content while allowing music and effects to retain conventional directivity having a typical ratio of direct-to-reverberant sound energy.
Patent Figures Illustrate various sized Audio Systems
Apple's patent FIG. 1A noted above shows us a view of a listening area with an audio receiver with, a set of six loudspeaker arrays with multiple transducers housed in a single cabinet; FIG. 8 below shows the production of a first set of directivity patterns for a dialogue signal/stem for a piece of sound program content and a second set of directivity patterns for a combined music and effects signal set for the piece of sound program content.
Apple's patent FIG. 6 noted below shows the flow and processing of each component of a piece of sound program content.
Apple's patent FIG. 7B noted above shows us the distribution of processed audio signals to two loudspeaker arrays.
Apple's patent application was originally filed back in October 2014 in Europe and published in Europe in November 2015. The U.S. filing under number 20170105084 was made in November 2016 and published today. Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.
One More Thing
In March Patently Apple posted a report titled "Apple's Augmented Reality Team is bringing in more Specialists to work on their Future Platform." In that report we noted that Tomlinson Holman was one of the specialists brought on board the augmented reality team. According to today's patent, he's been with Apple for some time.
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