There seems to be no shortage of ways for disruptors to shake up the way we consume and interact with content. However, when it comes to how we hear content, there’s really only one new concept that’s guaranteed to revolutionise our relationship with media and information services. Operating in the world of smart hearables and gaming headsets, Liverpool-based 3D audio company Kinicho is taking an emerging technological advancement and pushing it into previously unexplored territory. By creating firmware that allows hearable manufacturers to put the untapped potential of spatial audio into the hands – and ears – of users, company founder and CEO Garry Haywood is convinced Kinicho’s products are destined for big things – but what exactly is spatial audio?
Thankfully, Haywood is here to clue us all in on this revolutionary new tech: “Spatial Audio helps headphone wearers think they’re listening to sound that is in the world around them, like it is in nature,” he tells us, part way through his stint on Creative England Evolve, a scheme designed to make exciting screen-sector businesses investor-ready. “I started Kinicho in 2016 with a friend who is an audio engineer,” Haywood explains. “We had a vision based on the rise in popularity of headphones where consumers and enterprises would have an increasing appetite for realistic and more immersive media experiences. Yet we knew from our 50-plus years in audio production there were some big problems with the state-of-the-art that would limit the impact of spatial audio. We wanted to develop solutions that allow audio to be spatialised in a more convincing way to fulfil this potential.”
Kinicho’s solution is a physics engine for audio which combines the latest in digital signal processing with their radical approach to mimic natural listening. Their software processes the audio by simulating the way that soundwaves move in the physical world. “In nature when you hear a sound, you hear it with direction and distance, but when you’re wearing headphones, like if you’re watching a film on your mobile phone, the stereo soundtrack would sound like it’s coming from inside your head and not on the screen,” explains Haywood. “We achieve the perception of spatial audio by processing the sounds so they appear in your environment; in our movie example it would be on the screen, and with head-tracking sensors that the latest hearable devices have, you can move your head and the audio stays locked to the screen – it doesn’t move when your head moves. This is why we call it the Sonic Reality Engine; we want to power more realistic sonic experiences by replicating the way sound works in reality.”
It’s within this burgeoning niche that Kinicho are hoping to make their mark – and Haywood’s excitement at its raw potential isn’t just wishful thinking. With a ripple effect that spans movies, television, gaming, music and pretty much all media that utilizes sound (but not least information services like navigation and even your virtual personal assistant like Siri or Alexa), all current sector trends point towards spatial audio emerging as the next technological boom. “The big developments at the moment are taking place in the True Wireless Stereo marketplace,” suggests Haywood. “Everyone thinks of how brilliant it is that we no longer need cables but True Wireless Stereo headsets are powerful and smart computing devices. When they came out, the hot feature was the ability to control the device by touching it, but today it’s about active noise cancellation and transparency – either keeping the world out or letting it in.” He goes on to outline the next stage in personal audio’s evolution: “Spatial audio is the next killer feature; it’s about to explode and it’s going to change the way that you consume content and engage with information. It will change the experience of listening like stereo did in the 1960s.”
Look around the $26 billion headphone marketplace and you can already see spatial audio being used by big name brands – but Haywood has created a way to elevate the concept and make it more efficient. “We’ve been looking at this market for about five years, inventing a new spatial audio technique which has lots of different applications – but we’re launching in the smart hearables space, as we have a lot of advantages that the market has a need for,” he reveals. “Apple turned on spatial audio in their Airpod Pros in October last year which allowed you to watch films as though you were in the cinema – but they were forced to make a compromise with their product in that they create the spatial audio on the phone and not the device itself and this introduces a detectable delay between movement and audio changing,” Haywood says. “One reason for that is the state-of-the-art approach is very inefficient and if you did it in the earbud, it’d drain the battery very quickly and generate a lot of heat, which would become uncomfortable very quickly. Our solution is much more efficient and runs on the earbud to enable real-time applications for media and information services.”
Being on the crest of this soon-to-break wave undoubtedly places Kinicho in a prime position to capitalise on its inevitable popularity. “A lot of analysts are making the comparison that the smart headphone is growing at the same rate as the smartphone a decade ago – and last year 300 million units were sold, so that gives you an idea of what’s coming,” he says, pointing towards some promising sector projections. “People replacing their old headphones are going to be replacing them with True Wireless Stereo headphones – and people who have earlier versions are going to be upgrading. We have lots of other advantages where we can offer faster, smarter and better experiences because of the new approach that we’ve invented,” Haywood suggests. “If we can ride the wave at the right time, I think in five years time our Sonic Reality Engine will have set the standard for spatial audio.”