Brett Paine Murphy developed the SoundStage tabletop board game for children (or adults) to explore 3D audio in a playful way. I experienced SoundStage at the recent Dumbo Arts Festival in Brooklyn, NY, and was bowled over by the sound. It was a breathtaking display of technical virtuosity, but one that a 6-year-old child could enjoy. More specifically, SoundStage uses a double quadraphonic sound system with four speakers arranged in a square, and four more speakers closer to the floor. Within the eight-speaker sound cube there's a 2-foot square table, illuminated from below, and a large number of "sound objects" (animals, musical instruments, and an assortment of planes, cars, etc.) arranged around the perimeter of the table. Each object has its own sound. For example, put the jet plane sound object on the table and you'll hear the whoosh of its idling engines, and if you move the jet across the table, the sound will accelerate, take off and fly above you.
The sound quality of the samples was excellent, which really added to the experience. Reactions to the Sound Objects varied from one child to the next. The five year olds tended to just put different figures on and off the table and set off the sounds, but the slightly older ones quickly grasped the concept and knew they were controlling the sound in space. For example, the Insect figure moves up and down and to and fro from all eight speakers. Some sound objects, like Thomas the Tank Engine have multiple "states"; at rest he's in the station ringing his bell, move him and you'll hear his engine coming up to speed, etc. The character of the sound changes as the objects are moved out to the edge of the table, which makes it sound like it's moving away through space.
Murphy has exposed a number of children to SoundStage and quickly learned that the "electric guitar was the most popular sound, so the narrative round-robin kept coming back to someone starting a band with an electric guitar. But I learned there is nothing wrong with letting kids just play with sound. Inevitably, they would want to hear as many sounds as they could fit on the table."
At the Dumbo Art Festival I was fascinated by the way SoundStage engaged people of all ages, and once they get it, they really start listening. To see 10-year-olds so attuned to sound in a 3D space was remarkable. Who knows, some of these kids may grow up to be audiophiles.
SoundStage employs elements of Ambisonic surround technology, and uses a camera under the table to identify which figures are in use and track their movements. The camera's information is sent to a Mac mini computer, and a MOTU Ultralite-mk3 audio interface that sends the sound out to eight M-Audio BX5a speakers. Murphy has around 70 sound objects, but there's no practical limit as to how many could be created, or what types of sound samples could be used. Murphy drew upon a fair amount of open-source technology to create the SoundStage, but the end result is unique. This video will give you a better idea of how the game works.
SoundStage isn't a product you can buy, but Murphy is exploring his options. He just wanted to build something that would use sound to spark young kids' imagination. He thinks SoundStage would be great for museums or schools, then again, it could be a phone app. There's some interest in using SoundStage to mix music. Brett Paine Murphy is a freelance sound mixer/editor for TV and the Web.