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The streaming, AI and VR-assisted future of listening

While advances in mobile and streaming technology have been fundamental to shaping the listening experience of today, AI will open the next frontier

Tweet, view, swipe, like, follow, share. As our world has become filled with screens in our work as well as personal lives, it has also become filled with more and more visual imagery – and it can all start to feel a bit garish, a bit fake or simply too much. 

For some time now, whenever I’m in the office, instead of sitting in front of my laptop over lunch, I force myself away from my desk for 15 minutes, find a quiet space or just sit in my car, put in my earphones, turn on some music, and close my eyes. I've found that I can actually relax better by tuning out the visual world and concentrating on my music. I sleep better, I dream better, I live better. Even the brief lunch break clearly does some good, as I often work and engage better in the afternoon too.

According to a recent study, I’m not alone. Feeling increasingly distressed by fakery and overloaded with superficial images, millennials and Gen Z in particular are seeking deeper connection, greater meaning and more mindfulness – and they’re finding it when they close their eyes and start to listen. 

The emerging sonic revolution 

More and more, listening is becoming an essential focus of our daily lives. Here we are in early 2020, about to enter a sound-first era, what we at HARMAN are calling the “Decade of Sound.” How do we know this? Let’s take a look at some key findings from a recent study HARMAN and market research company Futuresource Consulting conducted with more than 8,000 consumers across six countries concerning “The Future of Listening”: 

  • 92% of Brits believe music eases everyday pressures 

  • 90% consider sound an integral part of life 

  • 81% of UK respondents say music makes them feel happy

  • 57% report their music consumption has increased compared to a year ago 

We aren’t the only ones to pick up on this trend. A recent Spotify study confirmed that the majority of millennials and Gen Z believe audio offers a vital escape from today’s visual overstimulation. And “The Big Comeback of Audio” was celebrated at the Advertising Week 2019 Convention in New York.

From sonic freedom today to AI and VR experiences tomorrow 

We’ve already seen a boom in smart speakers. This and the unleashing of sound experiences from any sort of tether are fuelling the audio revolution. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music mean sound is no longer dependent on a carrier medium or dedicated device. Instead, listening has become mobile and on-demand. Like an invisible companion, sound accompanies us wherever we go, without interruption. In the future, I believe that the distance between listener and sound will shrink even more. How so? 

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  1. VR moments will become a new norm 

Thanks to 3D technology and surround sound, sound will accompany us like a kind of halo and open up new virtual spaces for listeners. Soon, you’ll be able to combine listening to music with virtual spaces for an entirely new experience. Imagine relaxing to your favourite reggae classic while looking out over a VR-generated white-sand beach. 

  1. AI will allow for true personalisation 

While advances in mobile and streaming technology have been fundamental to shaping the listening experience of today, AI will open the next frontier. Three quarters of our survey respondents want an “all-in-one” solution that can remember and adjust their listening preferences according to different environments. And AI will allow for this level of personalisation, with tracks and moods tailored precisely for each listener and acoustics that auto adjust with every song. 

  1. AI will get creative 

Beyond personalisation, the computer is about to open up another exciting new possibility: music composed entirely by AI. In the near future, computer-generated music is projected to become a viable alternative to music produced by human artists. Of the UK survey respondents, 64% think AI apps to personalise and manipulate music are appealing, while 37% see computer-generated music as the future of listening. 

Even in the face of these changes, quality remains key 

Despite the notion that today’s listeners have sacrificed quality for convenience, our research shows that sound quality matters to them very much. Good sound quality triggers positive emotions such as a sense of the music coming to life, feeling uplifted or feeling relaxed, while bad quality triggers negative emotions such as dissatisfaction, annoyance or disappointment. With the positive ‘feel good’ benefits in mind, combined with the fact that sound can positively stimulate the nervous system and result in reduced stress, all point to audio contributing to a good atmosphere in the workspace.

This also lends itself more to the concept that audio offers a vital escape from today’s visual overstimulation, thereby creating the potential to improve focus, wellbeing and productivity. After all, it has been proven that better productivity comes as a by-product of a better mood.

Survey respondents confirm that the make-it-or-break-it role of sound quality in the enjoyment of music is likely to grow over the coming years. After years of visual dominance, people are now ready to enter a new era – the Decade of Sound. Technology is a powerful enabler for this shift as it intensifies and diversifies how we listen. With more moments of focused listening, the Decade of Sound will demand flawless audio quality. 

By Carsten Olesen, President of Consumer Audio at HARMAN International

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