One of the world’s largest military contractors, Raytheon, has developed a system that gives soldiers superhuman hearing. The system, called 3-D Audio, essentially allows soldiers to hear exactly where threats are coming from, and whatkind of threat it is — a rocket, gunfire, a Molotov cocktail — just like Marvel Comics’ Daredevil’s radar sense.
If this sounds a bit like your home entertainment’s surround sound system, or your fancy pair of 7.1 surround sound headphones, you’re not wrong. In essence, Raytheon has built the mother of all directional sound setups. As with most military gadgets, exact specifications are hard to come by, but it sounds like 3-D Audio will feature a lot of small, highly-directional speakers. ”Pilots for years have been listening to three or four radios, and when two people would talk at the same time, it would just come across garbled,” says Todd Lovell, a Raytheon engineer. “With the 3-D Audio, we can put those radios in different spatial locations relative to your head.” (See: Petman: The US Army’s latest lifelike robotic recruit.)
At the moment, a military plane or helicopter pilot receives warnings and notifications through a visual display, either in the center of the cockpit or on a head-up display (HUD). Processing this information takes time and distracts the pilot from the task at hand: maneuvering the aircraft. Throw in a bunch of radios, plus chatter from the co-pilot, all coming through the same speakers, and you can begin to imagine the difficulty of piloting a helicopter in a military setting. With 3D-Audio, all of these audio streams are split up into individual, spatially-separated channels that the pilot can tune into — a bit like picking out a single conversation in a crowded room. “You always hear them from where they actually are,” says J.D. Hill, another Raytheon engineer. “You don’t have to interpret anything. It’s all just about reaction and what you hear.”
Raytheon doesn’t give us much info about how 3-D Audio handles incoming threats, but the system apparently has enough resolution to tell pilots exactly which direction the threat is coming from. In essence, we’re talking about something that’s very similar to Dolby Prologic IIz, which uses 10 speakers — including two over your head — to provide very accurate surround sound for PC and console gamers. With some clever software, and a few more speakers below, it should be possible to produce a full, three-dimensional, high-resolution sound field. It shouldn’t be necessary to have hundreds of speakers, much in the same way that very directional sound can be produced by cleverly altering the output from clusters of two or three speakers in a 7.1 setup. (See: US Army spent $2.7 billion on a battlefield computer that doesn’t work.)
The system also gives some kind of auditory clue as to the type of threat, though again we don’t have any details. It might be as simple as different threats generating different tones, or perhaps the system actually recreates the sound of the incoming projectile. Furthermore, 3-D Audio will be used with Raytheon’s Advanced Distributed Aperture System (see video below), which stitches together a bunch of external video feeds on an internal display to give the pilot a much better view of his surroundings. In short, it sounds like Raytheon is essentially turning helicopters and airplanes into the world’s most accurate Call of Dutysimulators. As long as the soldiers remember that they’re not actually playing a video game when they launch a Hellfire missile…