CES Tunes into The Sound of the Future
Welcome to Studio Resonate Showcase. From emerging audiences to new capabilities, we're covering the predictions for the future of audio.
Welcome to the first installment of our The Sound of The Future series, where we cover predictions for the future of audio. From emerging audiences to new capabilities, we stay tuned in, so we can deliver top industry insights.
How would we describe CES 2022? To coin a Dickensian phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
The worst of times, in that the surge of the Omicron virus resulted in several high-profile cancellations and a considerable drop in attendance, which by now you’ve likely seen covered across the industry. Yet, it was the best of times as less crowded venues allowed more opportunities to take in the tech displays, chat with vendors in attendance, catch virtual presentations, and ruminate on emerging trends, many of which have grown out of our adaptation to life (and events) in the time of coronavirus.
Masked, vaxxed, and boosted, our Studio Resonate team hit the showroom floor to answer the question, “What does the future sound like?” Or perhaps more importantly, what role does sound play in shaping the future of consumer perception, behavior, and experience? After three days of exploring the sights (and sounds) and attending presentations both online and onsite, it was clear that sound will become increasingly important in the way we interact with technology, and in the way that technology shapes our experience of the world around us, both physically and digitally, as brands work to meet growing consumer appetites for sensorial experiences and personalized sound.
Omnichannel Marketing, Phygital Experiences, and the Rise of the Metaverse
There’s no question that technology has changed the way consumers discover and buy products. This is particularly true for retailers, many of whom already adopted omnichannel marketing approaches prior to the pandemic and found that COVID further accelerated consumer adoption of, and dependence on, e-commerce.
While COVID hasn’t put an end to flagship physical spaces, brands are exploring how retail experiences will look in the future: new ways to monetize products and services and new channels of distribution. We’ve seen the lines between physical and digital blurring at a rapid rate, with consumers demanding more integration of services in the “phygital” world, from online ordering to curbside pickup to in-store interactions with kiosks that pull consumer data from the cloud. In this connected and more personalized world, retailers are becoming platforms that not only sell products, but engage with consumers in new ways.
Deborah Weinswig, CEO of Coresight Research, presented research suggesting that live streaming has emerged as a new channel for distribution, and the “festivalization” of retail is driving greater sales and engagement, with consumers flocking to global shopping events on major eCommerce platforms (think Alibaba Singles’ Day or Amazon Prime Day).
Throw the metaverse into this AR/VR mix, with blockchain technology and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and brands are finding new ways to monetize products and services. Coresight documented over 30 major Western retail/consumer brands that launched NFT products in the final quarter of 2021. By 2025, they estimate that the metaverse market will be worth $875 billion. Weinswig shared that “brands that are engaging in the NFT space are shocked by the revenue it’s generating and how they’re able to engage with younger consumers. We’re just getting started, and there’s an entirely new level of opportunity.”
Where does audio fit into this mix? Sonic identities will become more important than ever in creating a consistent brand experience across multiple channels, bridging the physical and digital worlds. And sound will be a core driver of many immersive experiences that new technology promises to provide. Last year, we saw Fortnite emerge as a viable entertainment venue, and virtual (i.e., AI) music artists like Luo Tianyi and FN Meka have already amassed millions of followers. On the CES floor, Lotte Data Communication’s subsidiary, Caliverse, offered a K-Pop VR concert, showcasing their ability to provide engaging virtual entertainment with consumer avatars who could also try on clothing or inspect home appliances after the show. In the metaverse, engineers, designers, and AI are creating new spaces where the real estate and products are virtual, but the dollars spent to acquire them are most certainly real. From retail festivals and NFT collaborations with artists, to voice interactivity and the use of music and soundscapes to set the mood for virtual shopping experiences, audio is driving brand perception and consumer connection. It’s no longer enough to be seen. Brands need to be heard.
From Immersive Experiences to Immersive Spaces
As expected, CES 2022 was chock full of innovations designed to provide more immersive experiences for consumers, from haptic jackets that let wearers feel hugs (or punches) in virtual reality, to Panasonic's Soundslayer, a speaker worn around the neck designed to deliver a richer audio experience. Music tech start-up Wisear demoed their “EarEEG” neural interface that uses tiny electrodes to record brain and facial activity, allowing for “thought control” of music playback functions via specialized earbuds. The much-hyped Noveto N1 offered yet another take on the future of audio consumption, using proprietary beamforming technology to create a binaural listening experience without the need for headphones. The result is an immersive spatial audio experience for the listener, without disturbing the sonic space of anyone nearby.
While these kinds of innovations take personalized experiences to the next level, we also witnessed how physical spaces are adapting to provide immersive experiences that can be enjoyed not only solo, but also with friends and family. This was particularly evident in technology designed to transform home environments into immersive, multi-sensory spaces. New technology allowed for bigger sound from smaller speakers, TV displays with mind-blowing vibrancy and resolution, and voice-activated systems that controlled it all with the utterance of a simple command (rather than the touch of a button). Video projectors transformed walls into windows, and tabletops into animated moments of delight, both of which were a selling point of the Samsung “Freestyle” video projector—a self-contained mobile unit that featured 360 sound (and even screwed into a light socket for more creative options). Samsung also debuted another first: Smart TVs that let you browse and buy NFTs directly from your TV set.
The Future of Entertainment Venues: The Automobile
When it comes to designing immersive spaces, few could match the incredible advances in the automotive sector. Mary Barra, General Motors CEO, used her opening keynote to emphasize GM’s transition from automaker to technology innovator, touting their Ultifi platform: software designed to customize driving experiences by seamlessly connecting vehicle functionality to a passenger’s digital life. Bryan Nesbitt, GM Executive Director, Global Advanced Design and Global Architecture studio, introduced us to InnerSpace—Cadillac’s two-passenger electric, autonomous concept vehicle that combines biometric input and AI machine learning to support wellness experiences for its passengers.
Mercedes new line of EQS vehicles will feature custom-designed nature soundscapes from acoustician Gordon Hempton, as well as soundscapes designed to enhance feelings of vitality, warmth, joy, relaxation, and focus. These can be selected by the user or optimized by an AI assistant, further informed by passenger biometrics. Sonic experiences in the EQS are combined with other multi-sensory design elements, including interior illumination across a range of color pallets, fragrances that appeal to a passenger’s sense of smell, and haptic feedback through touchscreen pulses and massage programs in the seats.
BMW leaned heavily into immersive spaces vis a vis their “From Soul to Soul” installation, allowing attendees to experience the BMW Theatre screen (a 31.3-inch rear seat screen that features 5G streaming of 4k content, immersive sound, and connectivity to streaming services like Amazon Prime, Twitch, IMDbTV, and more), IconicSounds Electric (where attendees can experience soundscapes designed to enhance the driving experience, created in collaboration with Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer), and Joytopia (a multi-sensory journey designed to artistically represent MyModes, which create customized immersive user experiences in the interior of the vehicle).
While GM, BMW, and Mercedes may have taken the spotlight, there were a number of electric vehicles manufacturers represented, all with the potential to offer immersive experiences for their consumers: Fisker, Togg, Stelantis, Vinfast, and even Sony. Obviously, sound plays a vital role in creating these multi-sensory spaces, not only for automotive manufacturers but also for developers. Consider Silentium, an Israeli high-tech company specializing in noise reduction products aimed at the automotive Market, like its Personal Quiet Bubble™ (an individual zone of quiet that reduces environmental noise inside the vehicle) and Personal Sound Bubble™ (which divides any environment into several independent listening zones where audio experiences can be enjoyed separately). Similarly, DTS demonstrated DTS AutoSense, an occupant monitoring system that uses AI and image processing to sense, in real-time, occupants and objects within a vehicle. Facial recognition can be used to personalize infotainment recommendations, such as playlists, content, music, radio stations, and environmental settings. The tech can also assess passengers’ emotional states, which can then generate mood-based music and podcast recommendations via their DTS Connected Radio and HD Radio platforms.
While traditional media companies and streaming services have a tremendous opportunity to connect with consumers in these new immersive spaces, the sector is also ripe for disruption. We’ll no doubt see more collaboration between brands and creators as they work to procure their own content and programming. Automobiles won’t just be used for transportation. They’ll emerge as autonomous spaces for entertainment and relaxation in their own right.
It should come as no surprise that we found a number of sonic innovations in the health and wellness category too, serving as “sonic tonics” for what ails us. Environmental noise can be particularly problematic, affecting our quality of sleep which, in turn, can exacerbate other concerns, including obesity, stress, memory, and mental health. Enter devices like QuietOn, noise-canceling earplugs designed to keep sound out of our ears, rather than putting sound into them. Sleep Number debuted their 360™Smart Bed, which can “hear” snoring and respond by gently raising the head of the sonic offender and mitigating the problem. The headboard is equipped with speakers and integrated Bluetooth connectivity, providing a way to deliver soothing soundscapes, white noise, and noise reduction technology, all of which can promote healthier, relaxing sleep. Bosch Research announced a new endeavor featuring their SoundSee technology that utilizes an Audio AI to give meaning to the sounds. The project is a collaborative effort between Bosch, Highmark Health, and the Pediatric Institute of Allegheny Health Network, and involves the use of deep audio analysis of recordings of children as they speak and breathe during their visits to the pediatric clinic. The audio analysis can detect breathing problems in children, helping doctors spot signs of asthma. In the hearing category, Oticon offered Xceed, a hearing aid that scans a wearer’s surroundings 100 times per second to support how the brain naturally makes sense of sound. Xceed uses Brain Hearing™ technology to distinguish between speech and background noise and creates a more natural hearing experience.
The Sound of Voice Interactivity (is white)
Voice technology was deeply embedded into a variety of products and services on display at CES 2022, from e-commerce and metaverse-style interactions, to voice commands and digital assistants, ever-present in immersive automotive environments and smart home connections. There were new takes on the classic smart speaker, like Icon.ai’s “sound mirror,” which, as the name implies, is a mirror that also functions as a smart speaker. Many companies showcased products and services designed to enhance the voice experience and voice recognition. Deep Hearing offers information-based voice signal filtering that allows users to be understood in noisy environments. Fluent.ai showcased their “speech-to-intent” technology that offers voice recognition in any language and accent, as well as the ability to create user-defined wake words and commands. Software developer Supertone demoed software that supports real-time conversion of user voices into a variety of vocal tonalities and timbres, as well as offering “singing voice synthesis” that enables the creation of vocal performances for use in entertainment applications.
But something was missing. Innovation aside, the lack of sonic diversity in the voice sector was disturbing. While AI and diversity were addressed at the conference (e.g., “AI and Equity: Using AI to Create a Diverse Workforce and Inclusive World,” where Dr. Ximena Hartsock, Dr. Daniela Braga, and Rob Meadows discussed the need for ethical AI, transparency, and more diversity in data sets and developers), practically all the AI voices we heard at CES 2022 were female—and white. In fact, the only voice assistant of color heard was during a series of sessions focused on voice technology, curated and moderated by attn.live CEO, Ian Utile. It was here that we were introduced to C.L.Ai.R.A, an Afro-Latina, multilingual AI developed by Create Labs founder, Abran Maldonado. Multiple panelists affirmed that there’s an underlying problem with the overwhelmingly white, male demographics of the AI world who are unconsciously programming biases, sonic color lines, and digital discrimination into voice systems. As a result, the default voice of automotive assistants, connected homes, and a plethora of other devices is white. The issue is compounded by the fact that these assistants, designed to serve us, are also predominantly female. It’s a systemic problem, and developers and brands need to work harder to sonically diversify their voice systems, as well as the designers, engineers, and developers who create them (for more on the general subject of sonic diversity, please visit www.standforsonicdiversity.com).
The Future Sounds Amazing: Parting Thoughts
So what does the future sound like? If what we heard at CES 2022 is any indication, it sounds amazing. There’s no question that sound drives our experience of the world around us, whether that world is physical, digital, or phygital. It connects us emotionally to each other and to the technology and products we use. There’s no doubt it will be a critical part of life in the metaverse. Looking ahead, we see real opportunities for brands to use sound in new and innovative ways. Preparing for the future, brands and marketers will need to consider the role sound plays in immersive experiences and spaces, and how advertising and branded content will evolve to play in these spaces as well. They’ll need to think more strategically about sound, and how they can offer consistent, recognizable sonic experiences that surprise and delight consumers, no matter when, where, or how they’re heard. Now more than ever, brands need to approach sound from a design perspective, giving as much attention to the development of their sonic identity as they do to their visual identity. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to consider how current choices and practices might perpetuate digital discrimination and sonic color lines, particularly with voice interactive systems. Addressing these issues and making systemic changes will ensure that the future sounds diverse, too.