Why Can’t 3D Sound Be the Future of Movies?

By  · Published on April 5th, 2011

It’s dark, and it’s about to get darker. You slide ten cents worth of plastic onto your face because it’s supposed to make you see an extra dimension, and you’re paying more for it.

There’s no need to do a full intro on 3D. We all know it. We all have opinions about it. Some movies that utilize it are heart-stopping while others are migraine makers without the chance of a refund.

Yesterday, after coming late to the game on this one, I discovered the 3D world of sound, and it created an experience more immersive than any 3D I’ve ever seen.

Strap on your headphones, take a few minutes of your day off from studying Greek Literature (you won’t use it) or ordering lunch for your boss (he can skip it), and check it out:

It’s incredible. Of course stereo surround sound exists, but there’s nothing this intimate going on in sound design currently.

The question is whether there’s a practical use for this technology in the movie world. As amazing as this is, the gut response is that there isn’t with a dash of optimism that I’m totally wrong.

What it Would Require

  1. Headphones in every theater that had to be returned (because they wouldn’t be as cheap as the glasses).
  2. A filming process that took into consideration the position of the viewer at all times in recording the sound.
  3. A use for sound coming from behind the viewer.
  4. A way too sync it completely with the visuals.

The first requirement isn’t difficult, but the rest are. It would be a huge planning and execution burden on the sound design team as well as the entire filmmaking crew to create the movie with such detailed sound consideration in mind.

Plus, holophonic 3D seems magical because your mind does all the work. That would change if it were applied to images on screen, and just like visual 3D, there’s a gimmick factor here. The action is, by virtue of the screen, happening all in front of the viewer. However, there are sound designs currently that utilize voices far off screen. Imagine hearing someone right over your shoulder calling to the character on the screen. It might be too immersive.

There’s also the question of how a film score would fit into the puzzle.

The massive pro to all of this is the experience. The difference between visual 3D and binaural 3D sound (and holophonics too) is that the visual version doesn’t mimic real life. Seeing things with the focal point stretching out to infinity is not how we see things off screen. On the other hand, 3D sound is a direct representation of how we hear things – which is why it has the gift/curse of being so jarringly realistic.

The cons, however, are many. As nice as it is to protect yourself from an asshole audience member talking through the film, the headphones would also mute the audience response. There’s also the bulkiness of wearing headphones during a movie, but if people are willing to wear glasses that make the screen darker, why not wear the equivalent over your ears?

The biggest obstacle is that no one knows whether this technology can be implemented successfully. It doesn’t align perfectly with how movies are currently presented, and that misalignment could mean it might never work. We just don’t know because nobody has tried it yet. For filmmakers, it might be a logistical nightmare (and aren’t all leaps forward logistical nightmares at first?). For audiences, the experience might be too strong, too real. For example, Holophonic and binaural sound have both been reported to create the illusion of smell just by using aural stimulation.

That experience could be a disaster, but it might also be transcendent. It’s a gimmick, for sure, but it would be a gimmick that truly dropped the viewer directly into the experience of the film (and might be made even more realistic with the addition of visual 3D). Isn’t that the kind of new, incredible feeling that we welcome to theaters? Isn’t that the kind of thing Hollywood should invest in as a means to get people off the couch and out to the megaplex?

I think it is, and I see the limitations, but I’m a novice when it comes to the technology and its implementation. I only use this piece to ask the question of those smarter than I am: is this something that could work in movies?

What do you think?

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.