New technology developed in Norway makes it possible to zoom in on sound in much the same way that photographers can zoom in on an image. Television is just one area of application.
Both the Spanish and Dutch sides were penalised for rough play during this summer's Football World Cup final. Television gave us a close-up view of that fierce contest. Many viewers, however, would have relished the chance to hear the heated exchanges between players on the pitch rather than the stadium's noisemaking crowd. Viewers may well get that audio treat for the next World Cup.
Directional microphone picks up nearly any sound
Norwegians Vibeke Jahr and Morgan Kjølerbakken are not only sports enthusiasts. They are also the physicists who are adding a new dimension to the TV-viewing experience by adapting a well-known marine sonar technology for use above the water. Combining it with sophisticated software, the pair have developed an intelligent, sharply focused directional microphone system that enables TV producers to zoom their audio reception, much like they can zoom their camera lenses for close-ups. The new microphone allows TV viewers to hear the action on the football pitch, and many other venues, synchronised with the TV images.
"When the idea hit us," says Vibeke Jahr, "we began asking around to see if there was any interest in such a product. TV2, a Norwegian broadcast network, was very enthusiastic and wanted to be involved in its development." Jahr is CEO of Squarehead, the company she and Morgan Kjølerbakken started up in 2004 with the investment company Nunatak.
New areas of application
Just when their product was about to be launched, the financial crisis hit the media industry full-force. The founders had to concede that selling an accessory product like theirs to a cash-strapped industry bordered on the impossible.
Fortunately, they found other areas of application for their technology. The microphone system is ideal for use during conferences and video conferences, since it identifies the source of the sound, then isolates the speaker's voice. When a speaker moves about the stage while communicating to the audience, for example, the microphone tracks him. Should an audience member ask a question, the microphone automatically detects that and focuses on the questioner.
Still adapting for TV use
But the original TV application has by no means been shelved. "We still believe in its broadcast potential and are continuing to develop that version of the system," explains Jahr. "We have tested it on ice hockey games, among other things. It's incredible to hear the action: players colliding and shouting to each other. The viewer becomes much more immersed; it's like being out there on the ice."
Close contact with universities
"We have brought together the foremost expertise in acoustics, informatics, signal processing and electronics to ensure our success. We have close working relationships with the University of Oslo and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim -- and our interaction with them gives us access to the latest research findings in our field. This also keeps us in touch with students, so our company can recruit new personnel with smart ideas."
"Innovation is the keyword," emphasises Jahr. "To survive amidst competition we have to be the first and the best. And we are."
"But research for its own sake is not what holds the greatest value for us. It doesn't help much to develop fantastic technology if there is no market demand for it -- so we have to stay attuned to the needs of the market."
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