The Spirit Of Innovation


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. If you're listening to our program on your car radio, the sound quality may not be ideal. But you're about to meet a man who can do something about that. He's Chris Kyriakakis, at the University of Southern California's Immersive Audio Lab. He's spent years trying to make the experience of recorded sound as close to the live performance as possible; in your house, your car, or on your computer.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has the latest entry in our series on "West Coast Innovators."

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Want better sound from your home music system? Electrical engineering professor Chris Kyriakakis says it might not be your stereo components that are the problem. It might be your home.

CHRIS KYRIAKAKIS: The first problem that we started looking at had to do with figuring out how sound, when it leaves a loudspeaker - how does it interact with the environment, and what can go wrong?

JAFFE: Oh, so many things. But Kyriakakis has developed software that'll fix most of them in real time, before the problems get to your ears. For instance, let's say there is something about your living room that makes this Joan Osborne cut sound muddy. But listen carefully, and you'll quickly hear the software clear it up.


JOAN OSBORNE: (Singing) Whenever I'm with him, something inside starts to burning, and I'm filled with desire...

KYRIAKAKIS: A lot of sound from the speaker comes to your ears. But a lot of it goes other places, where it's not supposed to; hits the walls and the floors and the ceiling, and then arrives at your ears. And that's a form of distortion; it's called room distortion. And so we set out to figure out, first of all, how to measure it, and how to quantify it. And then, is there something we can do about it to fix those kinds of problems?

JAFFE: He's been at it since 1996, when the National Science Foundation funded research into immersive technologies, sometimes called virtual reality. His quest started with real reality - Boston Symphony Hall, known for its great acoustics. Kyriakakis put microphones all over it, and measured the sound reflections in different parts of the room.

KYRIAKAKIS: And then we used those differences to simulate what the effective reflections would be in recordings that didn't have the luxury of being recorded in that space, with that many microphones.

JAFFE: Kyriakakis says that even the little curves of your ear affect the way you perceive sound. So he measured that, too.

KYRIAKAKIS: If you put miniature microphones in willing subjects, it's totally painless.

JAFFE: Kyriakakis works in a field called psychoacoustics. It's not just about measuring sound, but about how we perceive sound. For instance, our bodies have evolved to screen out low frequencies or bass sounds at low volumes - and for good reason.

KYRIAKAKIS: You would be hearing, first of all, your inner - your blood flow, your heart thumping, other organs making noise. Those are all very low frequency.

JAFFE: So let's say that the neighbors tell you to turn down that Joan Osborne cut.


OSBORNE: (Singing) Whenever he calls my name, so slow, sweet and...

JAFFE: The bass just disappears. Kyriakakis has developed software that'll put it back, but you might not be able to hear it on the radio. The software that was developed in the lab hasn't stayed there. About 10 years ago, Kyriakakis co-founded a company - called Audyssey - that manufactures components, like one that compensates for your acoustically challenged living room. Audyssey also licenses its software, so you may have heard it at the local IMax theater. Or it might be in your TV or stereo receiver, or your Jaguar.

The current challenge is mobile devices; tablet computers, for instance. You can't play them very loud because the speakers are so small, bad things will happen. For example, to this Dire Straits cut.

KYRIAKAKIS: You start to hear some crackles and pops.


DIRE STRAITS: (Singing) You get a shiver in the dark. It's...

KYRIAKAKIS: And then it gets really bad and so to stop that, they just limit it to this maximum loudness. But if we turn on our technology, we can catch those crackles and pops before they come out.


DIRE STRAITS: (Singing) You feel all right when you hear the music ring.

JAFFE: That's twice the volume you can ordinarily get from a tablet computer. Kyriakakis has also made software to make cellphones and ear buds sound better. Those aren't available now, but he expects they will be by Christmas.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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