Beyond Immersion: Escaping into the You-Are-There™
There’s both Buzz and Fuzz around “immersive” movie experiences.
Article by Keith Yates, Keith Yates Design Group | September 24, 2022
I HAD A DRAWER-FULL of enthusiastically promoted sound enhancement devices and decided to conduct double-blind listening tests and write up the results for a national magazine. The selected products were promoted as making sound clearer, more “open” and “naturally three-dimensional” and “present,” as if the musicians were standing in your living room.
The gadgets tested included a CD “demagnetizer;” expensive, oversized cables with brick-like termination boxes at each end; diaper-like purple silk “jackets” that swaddle your oversized cables; and “cable lifters” to elevate your oversized, silk-jacketed cables an inch or so off the floor because, obviously, I guess, if you didn’t, the proximity of carpet fibers would surely scramble the orderly behavior of electrons and subatomic thingies in your otherwise garden-hose size cables.
Apparently, the sonic superiority of the diaper’s purple silk material was considered so obvious by its marketers that they couldn’t conceive that it would require explanation.
Of course, none of them altered the perceived sonic balance in any way whatsoever, either for the better or worse. They succeeded only in altering the balance in their customers’ checking accounts.
I BRING IT UP because when there’s a disconnect between what an industry promises, and what it actually delivers, there’s risk all around. Risk to the product suppliers, marketers, sellers, and end-customers. In the case of the purple silk cable diapers, the manufacturer ceased operations shortly after my review appeared.
I see a growing disconnect between what the home theater industry is promising and what it’s delivering.
So, this seems like a good time to have an adult conversation about the noun “immersion” and its adjectival cousin, “immersive” as used to describe home movie experiences.
THE WORD IMMERSION comes from Latin and is defined as the quality or state of being dipped, engulfed, sunk, submerged or surrounded by something, typically a fluid. You’re “immersed” when you dive into a swimming pool—water is all around you.
Because sound’s carrier, air, is technically classified as a fluid (it flows), we can say we’re “immersed” in sound without stretching the core definition of the term. So far so good.
Compared with previous technologies, which rely on loudspeakers horizontally arrayed around the listener (e.g., stereo, 5.1 or 7.1 channel playback), today’s Dolby Atmos soundtracks are considered multi-dimensionalbecause, in addition to the usual horizontally distributed sound sources, Atmos adds the vertical dimension, enabling us to hear aircraft, birds, animals in tree canopies, lightning etc. above us. All other things being equal, this multi-dimensional quality will increase the likelihood that the audience will find the sonic experience more life-like/believable.
If you’ve got the space and budget for an Atmos setup with, say, roughly a dozen or several dozen speakers with appropriate radiation patterns, installed in the right locations and aimed in the right directions, the buzz about 3D spatial envelopment—if that’s what you mean by “immersion”—is well earned. Do a little homework, then go for it; you won’t be disappointed.
Unfortunately, the definition of “immersion” has been stretched to imply something bigger, deeper, and fundamentally different: the promise to get an audience to suspend its disbelief and enter the presenter’s story world, to feel they’re present in it; they’re there.
Psychologists studying the sense of “being there” (also referred to as “presence” or “place illusion”) tell us it’s intrinsically binary (you’re “there” or you’re just watching a movie in your home theater); and a qualia, and therefore not directly measurable.
To make it relatable to those outside the research community, my team and I call it the You-Are-There™ Effect and have been working on measurement protocols etc. in recent years to assess and graphically display how “balanced” the performance is across several categories, as well as how relatively likely it will be that an audience will have the sense of entering the story, i.e., being there. It’s an ongoing effort; details will have to wait for another time.
In the meantime, I’d like to offer the observation that the meaning of “immersion”—being surrounded by something—is increasingly conflated with other physical and perceptual factors. In typical usage in the consumer A/V marketplace, it’s become an omnibus term slung at prospective customers and dealers in the hopes of juicing sales of speakers, flat-panel TVs, soundbars, hook-up cables, amplifiers etc.
WILL THE FUZZ KILL THE BUZZ?
We can’t stop marketing types from coining new terms or stretching the definitions of existing ones to the point where their once-crisp meanings become fuzzy and potentially misleading. Look around and you’ll see major manufacturers touting the “immersive” qualities of products that have little or nothing to do with the core definition of the word.
IT’S A PROBLEM:
Imagine you’ve arrayed and aimed two dozen carefully selected studio-grade speakers in a playback geometry lifted directly from Dolby’s requirements for Atmos-certified professional studios.
Let’s say the playback system doesn’t stop there: It passes the pants-flappage test as well, with strong, clean, visceral extension down to, say, 10Hz at, say, 120 dB or more. (If it can’t manage more than 105 dB at 10Hz it’ll be below the hearing threshold, i.e., you’ll probably be able to see massive woofers moving in & out several inches, but you won’t actually hear anything.) While we’re at it, let’s say the infrasonic output has distortion levels well below the human detection threshold in that frequency range at that playback level.
Next, let’s say you upsize your screen to the point where, if the horizontal viewing angle were any wider, it would trigger eyestrain and headaches in most viewers, akin to watching the back & forth of a tennis match from the net post at Wimbledon, where the ball boy crouches. Let’s say the room designer studied the perceptual processes involved and dialed the size to be a few degrees shy of the “it’s-unwatchable” cliff.
Let’s add that your room acoustics were rigorously modeled, simulated, optimized, and confirmed to be equal or superior to the world’s best professional control rooms. Imaging is pinpoint; dynamics are stunning; and speech intelligibility scores—a notorious Achilles heel in many a home theater, including big, expensive, “engineered” ones—land in the international “A” or “A+” range at every seat in every row. No “what-did-hesay?” interruptions and fumbling with the remote or touch panel to back up and replay the scene.
With big Atmos, big picture, big bass, deep infrasonic reach, a thought-through and vetted acoustic treatment plan and crystal-clear dialog even when half a dozen actors are mumbling at the same time, you’re expecting something gripping and exquisite, maybe reference-level. You’re pretty sure it’s going to win major awards.
ON OPENING-NIGHT, you gather friends, family and fellow enthusiasts, maybe even a magazine reviewer, and play an intensely suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat scene in an Academy Award winning film.
While everyone is holding their breath—you can hear a pin drop—you pick up the unmistakable sound of foot-clomps above the theater, followed by a toilet-flush, then a sink running. Then you pick up the sound of a door slamming down the hall. Shortly afterwards, the garage door motors are activated, propagating vibration and a low pitch hum throughout the whole house.
Obviously, the spell has been broken: That’s not a magical, you-are-there™ experience, that’s a loud TV experience. How much did you say this loud TV experience cost?
So, let’s rewind and say there are no audible heel strikes, toilet flushes, or garage door motor hum because no one else is home. Let’s say there’s no audible HVAC whooshing noise or stale air hanging around audience head locations because, well, the architect brought in the right people with graduate degrees in the relevant subjects, and they modeled and optimized everything using computational fluid dynamics and chemical diffusion software and similarly advanced tools to get Indoor Air Quality to be cleaner and fresher than any room within a 50-mile radius, including the thoracic surgery rooms at the major hospital nearby. That should do it, right?
But whenever the soundtrack happens to contain strong content at, say, 41Hz, 33Hz or 26Hz (or any frequencies you like below, say, 125Hz), the room rattles like a mariachi band. Maybe it’s the wall sconces, or the down-lights in the ceiling; maybe it’s the wall or ceiling framing and sheathing. Maybe it’s the hospitalgrade metal ducts vibrating against the soffit framing. You may need to haul some Milwaukee Sawzalls in and open up the walls, soffits and ceiling to straighten it out. Up for that?
Possibly more annoying is the breakdown of the ventriloquism effect because, at the audience seats, the angle between where you see someone’s lips moving on screen and where you hear the voice coming from exceeds the known limits for “visual capture.” It’s a geometry problem: an equalizer or “automatic room correction” button can’t fix it. It’s as disturbing as an obvious lip-sync problem. Maybe that’s off, too (though that one can be fixed without summoning the Sawzall squad).
NOTE THAT THE CLOMPS, rattles, whooshes, hums, stale air, ventriloquism effect breakdown etc. do not alterthe amazing 3D properties of the immersive audio system. The system’s frequency balance is unaffected by them; its distortion didn’t rise; the SPL didn’t change by a single decibel, and the radiation patterns of the speakers didn’t change by a single degree.
The system is still playing the soundtrack in all its rich, enveloping glory. Its immersive properties are undiminished… but no one is getting a You-Are-There™ experience because they’re different things. That’s a problem.
KYD’S YOU-ARE-THERE™ EFFECT SCORECARD aims to graphically convey the relative success of any project, based on ingesting roughly 40 different types of measurements, at all seats of interest, then weighting, grouping, and displaying the results along 8 separate axes. There’s no need for subjective assessments of any aspect of the performance—sonic, infrasonic, visual, vibrotactile, olfactory, etc.
The measurements are defined by KYD, but will be conducted by third-party measurement firms certified by us and using test gear we’ve approved. We ingest the data sent, run it through our algorithms and graph it. We don’t need to know what brands were installed or who was responsible for the A/V equipment choices or room design or how much it all cost or any other project details. Pretty much anyone can look at the graph and quickly get a handle on the basic quality of the final outcome—what went right, where the weak links are, and what the relative likelihood is that an audience will experience the You-Are-There™ Effect. One editor said, it’s “like an X-ray of the total theater experience.”
SO HOW IS IT that this continuous, proportional, auditory thing that refers to spatial envelopment came to be used interchangeably with something—You-Are-There™ Effect (or Place Illusion), take your pick—that’s binary (off/on) rather than proportional, and multimodal (auditory, visual, vibrotactile) rather than unimodal?
Turning a useful word like “immersion” into an omnibus term seems like something a summer intern in a marketing department might hatch on their lunch break, not something discussed and vetted by a disciplined engineering organization. The confusion about what it means robs it of its power to express something real.
IF WE ZOOM OUT, delivering what movie lovers seek doesn’t start with an Atmos (or DTS-X or Auro3D) audio system, it starts with an Escape Plan. The audience needs to escape the here-and-now reality, which is that it’s not in a jungle or desert or opera house or abandoned factory or wherever the director is trying to place it; the audience is in a relatively small room in a home watching a movie that’s set in one of those distant places.
Our ear-brain system knows where we really are, even with the lights out, or blindfolded, by parsing the telltale pattern of acoustic reflections and reverberation cues that announce “living room size space, low ceiling, and the floor steps down in the front” or whatever.
We don’t have to direct conscious attention to answering the “where-am-I?” question because we’re constantly ingesting data about our environment without having to think about it. It’s so deep in our wiring that you can think of it as a form of hunger. (In fact, leading neuroscientists call it epistemic hunger.)
The Escape Plan starts by suppressing the obvious tells, including the previously mentioned whooshes, clomps, thuds, flushes, rattles, resonances and other intrusive noises.
The next step in the Plan is to limit the room’s ability to launch strong acoustic cues (reflections) and to increase its ability to shape and direct that energy into something that is both constructive and nondescript … producing a subtle but lively, enveloping but “generic” glow. With all the AV gear off, the room should still sonically glow in a way that makes it a magnet for gatherings or just reading or meditating.
Similarly, light from the screen should not be allowed to reflect off the walls, floor and ceiling in ways that create distractions in the audience’s visual field, including peripheral vision. (It’s hard to ignore peripheral vision reports, as they’re wired to the fight-or-flight survival center in the “old” part of our brains.)
THE UPSHOT is that when you fire up the AV system in a dedicated theater or screening room worthy of the name, you should see the picture and hear the soundtrack in all their high-res glory. Whether it’s a You-Are-There™ experience or just a big TV experience depends more on the room than on the AV gear. There’s a lot more to be said and learned about that. Stay tuned; we’ll get to them.
IN THE MEANTIME, KEEP IN MIND that “immersive” is a descriptor of the content in the program material you’re playing and the capabilities of the audio system playing it. It is not synonymous with the You-Are-There™ Effect or Place Illusion, which are driven by many more factors than the resolution/fidelity of your audio and video components.
Before drilling down into the minutiae of equipment selections, quantities, locations, costs etc., you should enlist a qualified specialty engineering firm to help you map out that Escape Plan I mentioned; stitch the basic geometry into a coherent whole; and lay it out within the larger context—room, door, baffle wall, screen size, soffits, seats & seating platforms, isolation, ductwork, adjacencies etc.—in dimensioned drawings.
Shouldn’t be hard to remember: Escape is in the name of one of the industry’s most iconic brands.
Keith Yates is the founder and principal project designer at Keith Yates Design. With a bachelor of arts from the University of California, Berkeley, Keith’s passion for acoustic design and the science behind it led to further study of psychoacoustics at Stanford University Center for Computer Research in Music & Acoustics. He has authored over 100 feature articles on acoustics, audio, video, and room design in such many publications, including Stereophile, Home Theater, Stereophile Ultimate AV, and AudioVideo Interiors, to name a few. He has received numerous accolades, including global “Theater of the Decade” from AVS Forum and “Theater of the Year” awards from CEDIA and the Consumer Technology Association.
Keith Yates Design is the world-renowned master of the science of private theater design, engineering, and calibration with a passion for impressing audiences worldwide with you-are-there™ immersive entertainment experiences. Learn more at keithyates.com.
COPYRIGHT NOTICE: “YOU-ARE-THERE” is a trademark of Keith Yates Design Group, Inc., 2022