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3D Sound: A Short History
Our ability to localize sounds in a three-dimensional world has been studied by researchers for almost 100 years, ever since Lord Rayleigh’s duplex theory was introduced in 1911. Since then, many studies have resulted in a more comprehensive understanding of localization, human perception of 3D sound and auditory stream segregation capabilities.
Although the concept of simulated 3D audio has existed for some time, only recently has modern computing technology enabled the real-time processing needed to deliver high-precision 3D audio in entertainment and mission-critical applications.  The first major real-time use was developed for NASA in 1988, giving them the capability to use this technology in an astronaut communications system.  A space-walking astronaut out repairing a satellite needed to be in constant communication with many different information-providing support personnel. 

Because 3D audio allows sounds to be perceived as emanating from different locations, it was considered to be the gemstone for enabling less confusing simultaneous communications between the astronaut, the researcher in-lab with the satellite manual, mission control, and the crew inside the shuttle.  Speakers appeared to be heard at different locations, allowing the astronaut easy in-context understanding of who was speaking. 

Around the same time (late 1980's to early 1990's), many different sound-processing technologies began to emerge calling themselves “3D audio”.  Some of these technologies contained a cheap imitation of true, physically accurate, 3D audio.  The vast differences in these technologies, however, led to much confusion about the actual capabilities delivered.  In an effort to differentiate themselves from one another, the various technologies were sold under different catchy names including positional, direct, localized, spatialized, and surround sound/audio.

Over the next few years (mid 1990's), video gamers became aware of the technology and their demand set the stage for the first mass-market adoption of “3D audio”.  Game makers latched onto technologies that were simple, quick, easy and computationally cheap for providing an effect that could present the illusion of 3D audio.  As there was and still is no comprehensive system for rating 3D audio, the game makers were also heavily influenced by manufacturers’ reputations and the cost.  The technologies they chose turned out to be highly imprecise and not interactive like the 3D audio developed for NASA.  Unlike gaming, precision, interactivity and good versatility are required in mission-critical applications, such as life-critical communications, air traffic control, training simulators, cockpit systems and other military applications.

But even while “3D audio” designed for gaming had taken the consumer spotlight, advanced technologies were evolving from the earlier more precise and interactive NASA 3D audio.  Unfortunately, when military application developers attempted to incorporate COTS 3D audio technology, they too borrowed the well known but inferior “3D audio” from the gaming industries.  Even using higher-end gaming audio, military designers often ran into difficulties because the systems were inflexible, very expensive, difficult to use and too voluminous (making deployment difficult).  Recent advances in high-end 3D audio have overcome some of the major problems pertaining to versatility, scalability, cost and the significant computing power necessary to perform correct environment simulation, thus making accurate 3D sound a viable solution for future applications.

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