While smartphones have always been tools for consumers to listen to, and speak through, their purpose in this respect has grown considerably over the last couple of years. As although basic speaker and microphone functionality has been enough in the past to make and receive calls, smartphones have now adopted the role of many other products. Assuming the position of an audio playback device being one of the most obvious examples, and “always listening” devices one of the most recent examples.
Voice Assistants are getting better
‘Always listening’ is something that is now drawing the attention of Qualcomm in particular as while OEMs can simply include better quality speakers and microphones to offer an improved user experience, Qualcomm has looked to increase the performance of voice assistants at the software level through its Snapdragon platform. Something which the company was keen to showcase last week to the media through the help of a number of behind-the-scenes lab tours.
One of the most relevant examples is how Qualcomm is looking to use the Snapdragon platform to make any ‘listening’ device more responsive. What Qualcomm is specifically looking to improve on here is how well these assistants can hear the end user. That is, how well the user can be heard in terms of clarity of understanding, as well as clarity under environmental pressures - such as in the presence of other noises. To highlight the advancements now being made Qualcomm welcomed the media to what it calls its “Kitchen lab.” This is a room which has been made to look like a small open-plan kitchen and living area complete with many of the things and furniture to simulate a real-world room and many of the environmental aspects that could impact on end user experience. Using a reference design smart speaker playing “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, at increasingly higher volume levels, Qualcomm showed how much better devices are now performing in this respect and in a very timely fashion.
Though different in its end results, the same underlying voice UI technology also does impact on the user experience through smartphones. As the common aspect here is Qualcomm looking to improve how well devices (whatever they are) hear and respond, and even when under greater external pressures. Therefore whether the user is interacting with a voice assistant through a smart speaker in a busy room, through their smartphone on a busy street, or for that matter in another language, the same level of response can be expected.
Beamforming is Qualcomm’s secret sauce
If there was a need to sum up where Qualcomm ultimately wants to improve its audio qualities going forward it would be beamforming. As while this is an aspect that Qualcomm is looking to improve on with virtual assistants (and especially in smart speakers), beamforming seemed to be central to most, if not all, of the demonstrations the media were made privy to last week.
For those new to beamforming, this is essentially the description of technology that allows the signal of one thing to be more focused. For example, while beamforming can improve range in general (like with Wi-Fi), it also has the capability to specifically focus in on one user or device. Per the Wi-Fi example, this attribute would be less about extending range in general and more about identifying the ‘sweet spot’ in a room where you could place a Wi-Fi-enabled device to fully optimize the strength of the conenction. This type of improvement is where Qualcomm really wants to lead the market and in all of the implementations of its Smart Audio Platform. As while beamforming has some obvious benefits for ‘always listening’ - like for example specifically picking up the voice of a user in certain positions (or the ability to focus in on a user and not the room) - Qualcomm wants the opposite to be true as well. Where not only are devices making better use of beamforming for listening but also for relaying sound back to the user.
This was most neatly demonstrated through devices which look to provide a “3D” or spatial audio experience and was something which came up time and time again during the lab tours. On one occasion Qualcomm had visitors enter a ‘cinema room’ where video soundtracks were played through a reference design soundbar. What was most impressive about this demo was not only was the soundbar able to redistribute the sound waves so the user assumed they were coming from the front, behind and sides (3D-like) but also how the 3D output could be further accentuated in certain positions - once again, the use of a ‘sweet spot’ to really amplify the effects of distributing sound (from a device that is positioned in front of you) to attack from all angles.
Next-gen VR is about the sound
Similar 3D-like experiences were demonstrated as a means to showcase how the next wave of VR headsets will provide an even more immersive experience. As although the form factor of a sound bar has been changed to headphones in this demonstration the end result was the same - where those engaging with the VR demo were subjected to multi-directional sound attacks.
The demonstration itself was a space-themed, minimal-interaction, game/video where the user not only visually felt as if they were in the space hanger, but the audio enhancements compounded that feeling to the point where the user could close their eyes and hear where everything was coming from and going to. Enhancements which arguably complete the immersive experience by providing the illusion of sound depth.
Audio, audio, and more audio
Although the use of VR and immersive speakers proved to be the best use cases to amplify the improvements Qualcomm is making, there were plenty of more traditional demonstrations on show as well. For example Qualcomm also showed off one of its anechoic (echo-free) chambers (shown in the hero image) and explained how it uses rooms such as this to help improve the general smartphone user experience through the use of algorithms designed to increase echo cancellation and noise reduction. Once again, targeting the audio properties of a smartphone for use when it is in close proximity (by the ear or just in front of the mouth). As well as demonstrations and explanations on how its Hi-Fi DAC is improving while also leading the way in battery management. Something which again in specifically going to appeal to smartphone and mobile-based audio playback devices as while the quality is getting better so are the demands the technology puts on battery strain. In short, how devices powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and Aqstic solutions are now capable of running off a single smartphone battery for hours and hours - barring the introduction of any other smartphone element, such as the display. While these demos tended to more focus on promoting the refinement process of its technologies, their combination with the demos showcasing next-gen products did highlight how important Qualcomm sees audio at the chip level, in general.
Arguably, Qualcomm has already cemented its position as the go-to chip for mobile products. Most, if not all, of the currently flagship smartphones (as well as other platform devices like VR products powered by Daydream, smart speakers, and so on) typically make use of Snapdragon chips, processes and technologies. However that is the now and with increased competition in the chipset market it is sometimes important to understand why something has become the go-to option in the first place. From Qualcomm’s perspective, it is the forward-thinking features and future-proofing aspects of its solutions that helps the company and its products to stand apart from the competition - something Qualcomm has looked to reiterate over and over again. As while some companies are responding to market changes by adding features and supports, by that time Qualcomm is usually on its second, third, and sometimes fourth-generation of the same technology - which is the message Qualcomm is really looking to get across. Not, what Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and related technologies can do, but more so how well-advanced and feature-rich they already are. The current round of lab tours was specifically designed to highlight this point in terms of audio, although the same argument could be made for other Snapdragon-related areas... just look at the company's approach to 5G.