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Secretive audio startup Syng has a plan to take on smart speaker giants like Apple, Google, Amazon and Sonos: It's building immersive audio speaker technology that's meant to replace your 5.1 living room setup, make you feel like you're on stage with the band, and one day supply the soundtrack for apps running on your AR glasses.
Word of Syng's existence first surfaced in May, when the Financial Times reported that the company was helmed by longtime Apple designer Christopher Stringer as well as key HomePod engineer Afrooz Family. Now, a newly filed patent application reveals not only how Syng's technology works but also shows detailed renders of what may well be Syng's still-unannounced first product.
The application, filed in late November, explains how Syng wants to use spatial audio tech to replace physical devices with virtual speakers, how it may use AR platforms like Apple's ARKit to map out a room, and how it could recreate immersive 3D soundscapes. It also shows off Syng's deep roots in Cupertino: At least a dozen of the 18 credited co-inventors previously worked at Apple.
Syng did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Syng has been in stealth mode since its founding in 2018, with a website that includes little more than the company's minimalistic three-dotted logo. "We are committed to reimagining the world of audio by focusing on the future-state of sound as a gateway to the senses and a catalyst for new experiences," the company's LinkedIn page nebulously proclaims, while revealing little else about its technology. The Financial Times was equally vague in May, reporting that Syng's speakers would create "revolutionary sound" that was "indistinguishable from reality."
Syng's newly filed patent application fills in most of the blanks. It includes detailed renders and descriptions of a spherically shaped speaker that packs two woofers facing upward and downward, as well as three pairs of mid-frequency drivers and tweeters arranged in a ring for 360-degree beam-forming. The speakers, dubbed "cells" by the company, can be placed on a special stand, wall mount or hung from the ceiling.
It's worth noting that companies regularly attempt to patent products and technologies that don't ultimately make it to market, and that images in patent filings can be deceiving. However, the renders in the Syng patents are notable for their level of detail, down to the circuitry and the locking mechanism for a stand, suggesting a fairly advanced development stage.
The filing also offers some clues about how the company intends to market the product: A setup of Syng cells is meant to be modular and expandable, with the patent application noting that it "can be constructed using only a single cell and enhanced (potentially due to the acquisition over time) with additional cells."
Syng wants to recreate the sound of a traditional 7.1 home theater setup with just 3 speakers.Image: USPTO
Each cell setup is controlled by a master speaker that knows how many speakers are in the room, as well as other data about its environment. That master cell then renders incoming audio for spatial playback, and pipes it to the other speakers in the room, which is where the immersive audio magic comes in. For instance, if someone was watching a movie with 5.1 surround sound, Syng cells would be able to render the audio in a way that makes it sound like the listener was surrounded by multiple virtual speakers in addition to the physical cells.
"Given the spatial control of the audio, any number of different conventional surround sound speaker layouts (or indeed any arbitrary speaker layout) can be rendered using a number of cells that is significantly smaller than the number of conventional speakers that would be required to produce a similar sound field using conventional spatial audio rendering," the patent application reads.
In other words: Syng cells are meant to re-create 5.1 or 7.1 sound with just two or three physical speakers.
Syng may use mobile devices with depth-sensing capabilities to map rooms for spatial audio.Image: USPTO
The speakers shown in the filing include microphones used for both voice control as well as to map the sonic environment. A mobile app meant to control the speakers could also be used to aid spatial mapping, with one screenshot showing a mobile AR interface to facilitate 3D scanning of a room. Apps will also allow consumers to change the arrangement of audio in the room and place individual instruments within a space.
The functionality of Syng goes beyond music: The patent application also mentions ambient sound spaces, including audio re-creations of a jungle, complete with birds and monkeys. In addition to just providing these sound spaces as background audio, Syng envisions more utilitarian applications, including "functional directional alerts or beacons for guidance" for home safety and similar use cases.
Even more intriguing is the combination of Syng cells with AR and VR. Syng's filing mentions the ability to connect spatial audio with AR visuals. This could include cover art or more abstract sound visualizations.
Syng also envisions its technology to take cues from sensors in AR and VR wearables to reproduce audio in true 3D, thanks to an additional cell suspended from the ceiling for Z-axis coverage. "Audio can be rendered in a manner that tracks the head pose of a user wearing a virtual reality, mixed reality, or augmented reality headset," the filing reads. Immersive audio without the need to wear headphones could be especially useful for lightweight AR glasses.
To pull all this off, Syng is relying on an impressive talent roster. A third of the company's employees on LinkedIn indicate that they previously worked at Apple; other former employers include Harman, Bowers & Wilkins, Nest and ROLI. In addition to Family and Stringer, notable members of the team also include longtime Apple user interface designer Bas Ording and Chris Kyriakakis, a USC professor who has been teaching audio signal processing for more than two decades. Nest founder Matthew Rogers is a board member, and former Vevo CEO and Magic Leap CCO Rio Caraeff recently began advising the company.
It's still unclear when Syng will release its first product. The Financial Times reported in May that the company was targeting Q4 of this year, but that the pandemic may lead to delays. Still, there are some signs that Syng may be gearing up for a product launch: The company registered a trademark for "Cell Alpha" in August.
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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.