Qualcomm chips take smart audio into new era
Instant translation, wireless streaming, voice-activated... let's hear it for audio's amazing new technologies.
Chip maker Qualcomm is enhancing the experience for the smart audio sector by developing new ways to improve noise reduction and power saving, and adding features like voice activation, speech translation and even biometrics into the mix.
To give you some idea of scale, Qualcomm’s 2016 global revenue was $23.6billion, which dwarfs Arm’s £1.27billion take for the same period. The Cambridge site on Cambridge Business Park has 650 employees, predominantly on the engineering side, designing products for both the audio sector – smart speakers, earbuds – and automotive industry.
“We have shipped billions of audio devices over the decades, and automotive connectivity is based here too,” said Anthony Murray in his opening remarks at the firm’s Voice & Music Technology day – basically a celebration of all things Qualcomm – last week. Anthony is the Cambridge site manager and the general manager of the voice and music business unit for Qualcomm globally. “We provide connectivity applications for products such as voice-activated speakers in the home.
“We work with all the major players including Amazon, so one of the things we consider here is that homes are noisy, so how do you differentiate the noise environment from wake words activation?”
Wake words are the verbal commands used in gadgets, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, that carry out your instructions even if you’re in standby mode.
Qualcomm’s chips in this sector are increasingly refined. The firm – which is resisting a takeover effort from rival Broadcom – has developed class-leading active noise cancellation and boosted multi-mic far-field voice input technology, and the benefits of its advances will become more apparent in the 2018 product update at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month.
Improved architecture is on the cards for 2018 as the smart speaker, soundbar, networked audio and smart headphone sectors, driven by fast-growing consumer demand, add new features. The results are likely to mean smart speakers that play music and give users the experience of having a personal assistant in the home by combining traditional wireless speaker capabilities with cloud connectivity, voice interaction and other advanced features that demand large amounts of processing power.
“It’s an end-to-end challege and we stitch all the solutions together,” said Anthony.
Often, rather than audio makers asking the chip firm to build in new features, Qualcomm will get there first and then offer the improved features to the audio firm. That could mean adding biometrics to smart headphones – “like a Fitbit in your ear” – or it might mean going wireless, which was a no-no just a few years ago.
“Wireless used to mean compromising audio performance,” says Anthony, “but that’s not the case now, even in high resolution. A lot of traditional audio brands who said they wouldn’t go wireless now have.”
Bearing in mind that Qualcomm’s customers include Bang & Olufson, Bowers & Wilkins and Bose, these developments add up to a step change. In the headphones market, the technology means smaller products, though again Qualcomm is covering all bases – “everything from the big fashion statement headphones to super-discreet devices you can hardly see the user wearing,” explained senior director of product marketing Chris Havell after Anthony had left the podium.
A few years ago these were premium products. Now, “any half-decent headphones will support our technology”, adds Chris.
The biometrics options are already comprehensive. “The sensors integrated into these devices will include key performance indicators on footsteps, exercise, temperature and blood-sugar levels,” says Chris.
And performance even adapts to sound pressure, so if you are listening to content at high volume for a sustained period “a warning will be sent out, saying ‘You need to adapt, you’ve been exposed to high volume for long enough!’”
The next step for audio technology is instant translation.
“Instant translation means eliminating the barriers of language,” Chris said, “so you can readily have a conversation with someone without knowing their language, which would particularly help those who do business for instance in China. There are a huge breadth of challenges and developments which we are keen to address at Qualcomm.”
True wireless stereo, longer audio playback, digital assistant-ready and barge-in enabled, it’s impressive.
And that’s before you get to the crucial factor in all this new technology – power saving.
“That is a huge revamp of architecture,” said Chris. “We’ve been able to leverage critical technologies into the new Qualcomm roadmap.”
A good note to end the year on...