Finnish entrepreneurs Flexound Augmented Audio have developed an economical in-seat multi-sensory sound solution that might shake up your audience and your business. Martin Dew talks to CEO Mervi Heinaro and chief of cinema Mika Oesch about Flexound’s genesis and its patented technologies.
Some of the most recent cinema vernacular revolves around buzzwords such as ‘experiential’, ‘high-impact’ and ‘interactive’. If the upward trend for adoption of PLF auditoriums, immersive audio, HDR projection and in-lobby attractions is anything to go by, it won’t just be the punters needing seatbelts for the upcoming ride. With cinema exhibitors on the lookout for value-add propositions in this post-digital rollout era, together with their quest for a larger slice of the leisure dollar pie, it’s no surprise that SMEs like Finnish-born Flexound Augmented Audio have started to raise their heads above their seat backs.
Flexound Augmented Audio is an in-seat audio experience for cinema audiences. It doubles down on both the external soundscape created in the cinema auditorium itself, as well as the localized sound and vibration envelope generated at the individual seat level. An embedded and patented Elastic Vibrating Element (EVE) is the “single source” audio module in each seat back which does the heavy-lifting. If reaction from studio execs at CineEurope in June is testament to the product’s viability, the future may well be bright for this interactive, yet passive, technology.
Mervi Heinaro, CEO and co-founder of the new company, is rightly enthusiastic about the venture, and tells CT the key component is that “There’s no re-programming needed for any films or content.” It is not a competing, but a complementary technology. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Auro, DTS, Atmos, mono, stereo or 5.1 playing in the auditorium, it’s compatible with all of these,” she says. The Flexound EVE module in each seat is capable of outputting a full audible range of 15–20kHz, capitalses on being able to deliver equal sound quality at each seat location, and even plugs into the cinema processor via a DSP board to receive its signal. Furthermore, the ease of integration and potential to retro-fit older seating — as well as co-develop with any new seating manufacturer — make the economies of scale of the technology “extremely attractive,” according to Mervi.
The company confidently states in its PR messaging that moviegoers are prepared to pay a premium in cinemas using their revolutionary technology, that dialogue clarity is improved, and the augmentation of vibration — instead of brute force subwoofer-produced bass — makes for a more pleasant, balanced listening experience. This latter claim might be a strong sway to chains that have had to field complaints from customers enduring tinnitus-inducing sound pressure levels at the local multiplex.
Flexing their muscles
Flexound started in January 2015 after acoustics whizz Jukka Linjama, formerly of Nokia, developed a module which combines audio and soundwave vibration from the same source. His wife, Mirja, had also been working with disabled and autistic children for the previous 25 years, during which she tested combining music and vibration as a form of therapy, contributing to Jukka’s formation of a template for the new tech. It wasn’t long before the small team decided this was “…a technology that fits perfectly into the cinema world, and now here we are three and a half years later.”
The company also began to examine other vertical business channels and has started selling a vibrating audio pillow for the home, known as Humu, which is sold under an OEM deal with The Sharper Image in the US, and should find its way its way to online retail platforms shortly. A more comprehensive and wider worldwide distribution network for Humu is in process, while Flexound’s professional system itself may eventually appear in museums, live theatre and concert arenas. The focus for the moment is cinema, and CineEurope 2018 marked the official launch.
As for the architecture and moving parts of the Flexound cinema system, chief of cinema Mika Oesch stresses the importance that the EVE module will “even go below 20Hz” and into the range where “you don’t hear it, but you can feel it.” He explains that “we split the signal from the existing sound processor and feed all the channels to our DSP, and there we mix the sound for our chairs”. Because the system is passive and the power consumption low, it is possible to “use quite thin speaker cables” to connect each seat.
The EVE module itself is two-channel stereo but because the mix is handled by the proprietary Flexound DSP board connected to the cinema processor, any format, “even Atmos and immersive systems,” is compatible. Mervi is adamant that one of the overarching upsells with Flexound is the equal and high sound quality available from every seat with it installed. “It doesn’t matter if you are in the corner, in the back row, in the front row, currently — even with the best sound systems — it will only be some select seats that experience a perfect soundstage. With our solution, you can avoid this restriction because the sound is close, as well as having the combination of, and perfect synchrony with, current sound systems. When filmmakers decide an aeroplane flies over you or a train comes from the left, all of the binaural or immersive sounds come from the correct direction, and that’s the beauty, In each seat, even if you are sitting in the far left of the auditorium, you will still get the sound coming from the correct place.”
Both Mervi and Mika go to some lengths to explain that in no way does the system compete with the wider audio mix being delivered in the auditorium. Flexound is time-aligned, so it will match the external soundscape. “We want to respect the original sound design,” says Mika. “We don’t want to create a circus or a gadget that takes the viewer out of the story. Our system is transparent, even though sound comes from the headrest.” Mervi also believes the system is truly immersive, and that the focus for the audience will be the movie. “The idea is that you don’t pay attention; of course, there may be some moments when you say ‘Wow! I’m feeling something’ but the focus should not be ‘I’m hearing something from my seat.’ The focus has to be ‘I’m in the story.’ It has to support the story, and be very natural, and that’s one of its beauties”
The Flexound team has been visiting several speaker manufacturers over the past couple of years, many of whom have asked “‘How the hell did you come up with this?’,” says Mervi. She says the company has six patent categories tied up in the various business channels and in a number of international markets, most of which are pending. However, the EVE core technology has been granted patents in both Finland and the USA. Mervi believes this is nothing short of a breakthrough for this unique multi-sensory product class.
The real-world testbed
The company only began working secretly on a theatrical version of this augmented audio solution in September last year and deployed a real-world testbed cinema auditorium in Beijing where it has been monitoring and analysing audience reactions. That location has been compiling reports with measurements based on physiological changes between ‘off’ and ‘on’ modes of the system. It is due to the comparatively short history of the company’s cinema offering and its lack of geographical proximity to Hollywood that Mervi says the company has not had a chance to get official endorsements from the creative community yet. That’s not to say that they haven’t been forthcoming. Anecdotally, she confirms that the Californian studio executives and filmmakers who have experienced the system so far have been “ecstatic” and that sound designers in Finland “go nuts about it.”
The EVE module can be integrated into a number of product categories and a licensing business model will apply to many of its customers as in, for example, the case of automotive. In scenarios where the core components are provided by Flexound, the augmented audio module becomes a “branded ingredient, almost like ‘Intel Inside’ on a computer.” As far as cinema is concerned, Flexound must become the full system provider because both integrators and seating companies are key to delivery of the solution.
“A lot of seating companies felt they need to talk to us since our launch,” says Mervi, “and major integrators have approached us.” And, of course, the company is excited that it is being taken seriously. Mervi and Mika have no illusions about Flexound’s strategic requirement to become not only the component providers, but the integration trainers as well. Seating companies are looking to add sound systems to their portfolios and Flexound’s team are confident they will be at the leading edge of that drive.
Is seating driving the cinema business?
The comfort of cinema seating is holding more equity than in previous years too, in tandem with a concerted effort by exhibitors to charge their employees with delivering a more customer-centric approach from point of entry to point of exit. “Several industry notices recently have suggested that it’s actually seating now driving some of the business in cinema. But, obviously, there has also been the rise of immersive sound systems. We combine both,” says Mervi.
Cost efficiency also lies at the heart of Flexound’s vision. Mervi declares several times in conversation that there is no need for a tailored programme software, nor special audio format, and these advantages leverage the simple fact that at no point in the production chain do you “have to redo the films.” She believes these cost savings extend to installation and commissioning too, and that the Flexound offering is more streamlined than competitors’ models. “Obviously there’s an investment needed to install the equipment and commission it, but it is more straightforward than the scenario presented by comparable technologies,” says Mervi. Flexound is open to how the sales process is realised, whether the company sells the system directly, or via the seating company. “We are not looking to give exclusivity to any seating companies, but would rather work with exhibitors and their chosen seating suppliers.”
Mervi and Mika are highly tuned to the requirement of their customers to minimise downtime during a Flexound refurbishment. They know that a given auditorium or complex will present a different challenge each time, but the company is currently examining models that project mean downtime in a standard 200-seat auditorium. If a refurbishment only entails changing out the auditorium’s back-rests, maximum downtime should peak at 48 hours, with work conducted overnight. This includes integration and cabling, time-alignment setup and commissioning.
With several exhibitors now opting to install a limited number of interactive seating units in, for example, a PLF auditorium, Flexound makes clear that it will factor this trend into its marketing message too. Mervi adds that “you don’t lose any of the total number of seats with our system, which is another cost efficiency. Flexound should fit into a normal chair.” The EVE module should also only use “ten percent of the energy of some of our competitors’ systems.”