7 things to listen out for in 2018 as audio undergoes a revolution

Last year was a remarkable 12 months for innovation in audio story telling. Listeners in 2017 had the chance to experience new ways of listening to stories told through artificial intelligence, gaming, augmented reality and personalized soundtrails.

The shift of radio plays to smartphones has transformed the medium and is bringing a wave of innovation. Yet audio fiction has always had a radical relationship with technology, from the early development of the Electrophone in the 19th century, which enabled London listeners to catch up on stage performances from as far as Paris – or experimental thinking in the 1930s from Bertolt Brecht about switching the direction of radio so listeners led the stories.

As audio storytelling goes digital, new and old ideas about the potential of the medium are being realised. Here are some of the trends to look out for:

1. Getting the listener involved

Involving listeners in the shaping of the story has long been an aspiration of radio thinkers since the 1930s and radio producers during the 80s and 90s played with listener phone-in productions such as the Finnish improvised production, Diamonds out of a Hat. More recently the online serial, You Are Here, updates the listener-led format for the internet age.

Yet, like in so many areas, artificial intelligence and the internet of things is creating new opportunity. The BBC R&D seized upon this by releasing The Inspection Chamber, a sci-fi comedy that works over Amazon Alexa and other smart speakers, responding to an individual person’s voice and changing the plot accordingly, working through a “story engine” as a computer game might.

2. 3D soundscape

As listeners swap speakers for smartphone headphones, new opportunities emerge for dramatists to develop more ambitious soundscapes. One technique is the use of binaural recording – whereby microphones are positioned to mirror the experience of human ears. It’s a well-established method but one still rarely used. “It offers a fresh new perspective,” says Michel LaFrance in an interview. His company, Owlfield, is known creating immersive sometimes fantasy soundscapes, that put the listener at the center of the experience in the same way VR does in vision. “There is a greater connection, to a story,” he notes, “when you feel present alongside the characters in the story-world.”

3. More than just noise

In 2014 Lance Dann, wrote an influential article observing that, since all people’s visual, sound and entertainment media are on one device, why should an audio play just stop at being just, well, sound? Having pioneered this approach with The Flickerman in 2008, he launched the much lauded thriller Blood Culture in 2017 which enables fans to explore character-made videos, apply to join the shadowy “Meta” organization in which the story is set or engage in a text exchange with one of the characters automated by AI.

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