Norfolk ad agency uses cutting-edge sound technology for immersive experience – Virginian-Pilot



NORFOLK

Put on your headphones, and listen:

A barber, pacing behind you, unfurls a cape.

He sharpens his scissors, then snips, snips, snips around your ears, the nape of your neck and forehead. Close your eyes: You know the direction he’s clipping your hair.

The final touch comes from a few swishes of a blow dryer. The forced air flaps in your ears.

If there’s anything Jarrett Beeler’s “3-D audio” demonstration reminds you of, it’s that human senses are so closely linked, the sound of air whooshing in your ear can trick your mind into feeling it.

Beeler, co-owner of Sway Creative Labs, a Norfolk-based print, broadcasting and digital ad agency, is counting on that, hoping to grab consumers’ attention through their senses. The company he shares with Bryce Picard in Freemason recently bought “binaural” microphones and has already begun recording commercials with them. The agency wants to provide listeners with a more immersive experience.

Their first completed project with the equipment, a digital radio spot for Colonial Williamsburg on Pandora, has run for a couple of weeks.

“The only challenge with this is that it does require headphones,” Beeler said. “If you pull the headphones out, the ad still sounds OK, but you’re not going to get that same immersion.”

As game and entertainment developers race into the virtual-reality and 360-degree frontier, ad creatives are looking for ways to leverage those technologies for selling goods and services. Some audiences have watched a Jameson whiskey shot seemingly slide off the screen; cookie fiends have experienced Oreo’s 360-degree animated wonderland.

Developers are also beginning to show interest in advancing the audio side of virtual reality. If a person is wearing a VR headset, such as Google Cardboard or Oculus, they want sounds to change with the user’s head movements, too.

This month, Facebook bought Two Big Ears, an Edinburgh, Scotland-based audio company specializing in editing and mixing tools for virtual-reality content creators. As part of the acquisition, Facebook is making the tools free, perhaps to encourage more development in the field.

In the Colonial Williamsburg ad, which is audio only, listeners hear a cannon explode, blacksmith hammers clanging, a horse-drawn carriage ambling behind the listener, and an approaching fife and drum corps.

Rather than re-creating those sounds in a studio, Sway, with the assistance of Black Iris, a Richmond-based audio production house, recorded everything at the historical site.

Their gear may have looked a little strange to the tourists that day: a field recorder, some cables and two mics that look like human ears.

Audio tech company 3Dio, the maker of Sway’s equipment, sells the binaural mics for $500 to $5,500. While regular microphones capture sound without any obstruction to the audio waves, the company explains, binaural devices simulate the way ears shape and channel sound; the brain then interprets those alterations as directional cues.

That’s distinct from “surround sound,” experts say. In a movie theater, for example, an explosion on one side of the screen might be programmed to coordinate with a blast coming from a speaker on the same side of the room.

“Typically, if you’re recording in stereo, and it’s a (Dolby) 5.1 or even a surround system sort of deal, you’ve got a hard left and a hard right,” Beeler said. “Those are kind of the boundaries.”

Andrea Sardone, executive director of marketing for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said after getting a demonstration from Sway on how the technology worked that it didn’t take much more to convince her. But she admits it required a learning curve to sell the idea to the organization’s leadership, starting with how to pronounce “binaural.”

Despite Williamsburg’s being an 18th century city, Sardone said, it’s not incompatible with a high-tech ad. With the city’s unique sounds – muskets, town criers and bleating sheep – the historical re-enactment lends itself to a virtual-reality experience, she said.

“We’ve been in 3-D forever,” she said.

Whether the advertisement is accomplishing more than what any other radio spot could do is unclear. The foundation anticipates digital radio will help it reach a different audience than it might with traditional media. But other than admission and hotel bookings, the results are hard to track. Even harder is trying to pinpoint one commercial as the catalyst, Sardone said.

“Advertising is still about frequency. Somebody has to hear something seven times or nine times before they actually ‘hear’ it,” she said. “But this might be a little different because it is pretty compelling sound.”

While Sway doesn’t expect all ad buyers to go this route, the team hopes to work with more experience-related businesses, such as an amusement park or haunted house.

“There are certain clients that this makes a whole lot more sense for and others that it maybe doesn’t,” Beeler said. “You’d be really trying to make a 3-D-sound ad for a lawyer’s office.”


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