By Amy Nicholson
Some recent big news in 3D technology has been the ascendance of RealD projection, a digital format that allows viewers to shed those goofy red and blue glasses for a slick pair of black shades. Following the debut RealD feature Chicken Little in 2005, which was released in 3D on only 100 screens (each of which earned two and a half times more revenue than theaters with flat projection), the technology has seen a marked uptick with this year heralding several RealD features including Journey to the Center of the Earth, the concert films for Hannah Montana and U2, and the upcoming Disney cartoon Bolt.
Now, RealD has joined forces with Iosono, a 3D sound system that pledges to give audiences a dimensional auditory experience that surround sound can't match. The goal is to create what the company calls an "audio hologram," where every seat in the theater is enveloped by the same sound. Iosono's method is based on wave field synthesis. The theater is circled with what looks like a rollercoaster track made of individual speakers. Each speaker is virtually connected to a digital workstation for a simple set up that avoid a snarl of audio cables and wires. At a presentation at the Mann's Chinese in Hollywood, 380 speakers hugged the walls of the theater. The first simulations were sound-only demonstrations, undermined by the crackling of potato chip bags from the lunch boxes handed out at the entrance. During a jungle sequence, the sound of thunder rumbled up from the front left corner while birds and insects seemed to fly right overhead. The audience was cautioned to pay attention to the noise of water drops, which was so specific in location that it felt as though one would know exactly where to look for the puddles. Next, moderator Tanya Johnston, Iosono's VP of Business Development showed how with only the movements of a computer mouse, the sound of a gibbering ghost could sweep through the audience, its whispers passing through every seat going "in the ear, through the head, and out," described Johnston.
Later demonstrations paired the Iosono system with visual clips. First, the presenters played a clip from the 2004 Japanese feature-length cartoon Steam Boy using the theater's original 5.1 system, which sounded flatter and clumsier than usual. The brief reel showed the film's climax, a crescendo of explosions and shattering glass over an orchestral score. When played again in a remastered Iosono version, the sound wasn't astoundingly different, but if one concentrated, the broken glass seemed to sprinkle over the audience's head and the individual instruments in the symphony were more pronounced. Steam Boy's sound mixer J. Stanley Johnstone (no relation to Ms. Johnstone) spoke about the relative simplicity of adapting standard audio mixes to Iosono's technology, and then said that just as 3D films have advanced past the gimmickry of pop out surprises like the decapitated fish in Jaws III, he anticipates 3D sound will also evolve to be as lush and realistic as life. For the day's demonstrations, however, Iosono and RealD were limited to more jarring and cartoonish uses of their potentially game-changing technology. Their closer -- a drag race sequence from the Japanese anime Freedom -- combined 3D sight and sound, but was so raucous that the audio and visual precision of the earlier demonstrations was lost in the choppy editing, unrestrained laser beams, and throttling car engines.