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How Syng wants to take on Apple’s HomePod and revolutionize whole-home audio

Key former Apple employees are helping the secretive startup build spatial audio speakers.

Renders of Syng's cell speaker

A new patent application features highly detailed renders of a speaker product in development at the secretive audio startup Syng.

Image: USPTO

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 vs. 7.1 speaker setup 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 AR functionality 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.

Big Tech benefits from Biden’s sweeping immigration actions

Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai praised President Biden's immigration actions, which read like a tech industry wishlist.

Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden signed two immigration-related executive orders on Wednesday.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immediately after being sworn in as president Wednesday, Joe Biden signed two pro-immigration executive orders and delivered an immigration bill to Congress that reads like a tech industry wishlist. The move drew enthusiastic praise from tech leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

President Biden nullified several of former-President Trump's most hawkish immigration policies. His executive orders reversed the so-called "Muslim ban" and instructed the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which the Trump administration had sought to end. He also sent an expansive immigration reform bill to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals and make it easier for foreign U.S. graduates with STEM degrees to stay in the United States, among other provisions.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

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Microsoft wants to use AR to see through fog and smoke

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Image: Microsoft/USPTO

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Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Syng's $1,500 Cell Alpha speaker is on the way

The unique smart speaker made by Syng promises immersive spatial audio.

Syng's Cell Alpha smart speaker will cost $1,500, and you'll need three to really appreciate its spatial audio sound.

Image: Syng

Los Angeles-based audio hardware startup Syng is getting ready to take orders for its first product: The company is in the process of starting a presale campaign for Cell Alpha, a still-unannounced spatial audio speaker that is slated to ship in the first quarter of 2021. Syng is selling each Cell Alpha for $1,500, according to a presale page discovered by Protocol. The company is advising prospective customers that they will be able to get the most immersive sound with three or more Cell speakers. (Buyers of multiple speakers are set to receive a small discount.)

Syng didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Janko Roettgers

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.

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Image: USPTO

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Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

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Given that Apple doesn't license its operating system to companies to install on their own hardware, the Mac Mini has been the cheapest option for a long time. AWS will likely add Mac Minis based on Apple's M1 chip at a later date.

Image: Apple

AWS is now an Apple customer.

Apple developers will be able to use AWS-managed Mac Minis to test their Mac and iOS applications, AWS announced Monday evening on the first day of the virtual re:Invent event. The new Mac instances, based around Intel's Core i7 processors, will allow AWS customers to run Apple developer tools like Xcode alongside other AWS services such as Elastic Block Storage and Virtual Private Cloud.

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