BookTech Awards Showcase: The Owl Field

BookTech Awards Showcase: The Owl Field

"When listening, you truly feel as though you are physically in the room where the recording took place." Montreal-born Michel Lafrance tells Molly Flatt about binaural recording, which is the foundation of his Owl Field startup. In Flatt's fourth in her series of eight FutureBook Conference 2015 BookTech Showcase profiles, we hear echoes of Paul Camerons' work with Booktrack. But LaFrance also describes altering works in the "3D' process, even giving the listener a character's voice "to simulate the listener’s movement in the story...we can incorporate how a person’s footsteps both reverberate in the environment and resonate up their skeleton." Woowoo. Listen up.—Porter Anderson

 From VR to vlogging, Pinterest to Periscope, digital innovation is usually associated with the triumph of the visual over plain old-fashioned words.

In the publishing world, this means that consumer-facing ‘book tech’ becomes equated with video-driven interactive storytelling projects, six-second Vine book trailers, YouTube author interviews and Instagram campaigns.

But what about audio? According to the results of The Bookseller’s annual Digital Census released last month, audio is currently one of the fastest growing sectors in the digital book market, with smart devices fuelling our hunger for plug-and-play literature.

And Michel Lafrance, founder of 3D audio drama startup The Owl Field—one of eight finalists for the FutureBook BookTech Company of the Year Award—certainly believes that it’s an under-exploited technology.

“With visual entertainment, like film and television, we merely accept what is shown to us and don’t get a chance to build the world ourselves,” Lafrance says from his home in Edinburgh. “Sound, however, allows for near limitless imagination. The listener constructs their own interpretation, and is therefore transported to a world they believe is real.

“In addition, because every aspect of the story must be told through sound, the format is well suited for people with sight loss. In terms of available entertainment, especially in terms of virtual reality, this is a highly under-served community.”

Born in Montreal, Lafrance spent his twenties as a musician, self-producing albums with his bandmates. After a stint of formal study in Edinburgh he then became a freelance sound recordist, mixer and composer, and it was while working on ads and short films that he had his big brainwave.

“The idea for The Owl Field came about when I discovered the recent revival in popularity for binaural recording,” he says. “Binaural recording is a technique that attempts to accurately recreate how humans spatialise sound, and create a believable 3D soundscape.

"The microphones are set up in such a way that they ‘hear’ as your ears would and so, when listening, you truly feel as though you are physically in the room where the recording took place. After listening to my first binaural recording, I immediately wanted to elevate this immersive experience to a new level by combining it with engrossing audio drama.”

However, Lafrance knew that the technology couldn’t just be transplanted to fiction wholesale.

“With traditional binaural recording, the microphones are set up in a static position, so when you listen to a recording, your perspective never changes. This is appropriate for listening to a concert while seated, but it severely limits what can be done in terms of storytelling.

“To give the author of a binaural story more freedom, I turned to modern 3D audio software where I could control all the sound elements in post-production. This digital shift makes it possible for us to simulate the listener’s movement in the story and to create environments of any form we desire. For example, we can incorporate how a person’s footsteps both reverberate in the environment and resonate up their skeleton, or add custom sound effects such as the swish of an arm against clothes.”

The result, according to feedback from early users, Lafrance says, is exhilarating. 

“The first time listening to a binaural recording is similar to the first time seeing a 3D film,” Lafrance enthuses. “You want to reach out and touch the sounds. You duck out of the way of something flying past your ear, you slink into your seat as someone whispers from behind. The sound can come at you from any angle, at any moment, at any distance, and at any volume, so there’s a constant sensation of anticipation. In our first few productions we’ve taken advantage of that, aiming to thrill.”

Alongside those initial in-house thrillers, The Owl Field team soon hopes to offer adaptations of everything from Shakespeare plays to mainstream bestsellers, although Lafrance acknowledges that this will rely on authors’ willingness to embrace the new storytelling possibilities that their tech provides.

“The challenge with existing books is the need to adapt them to our format,” he admits. “To ensure the listener identifies themselves as the main character, we purposefully limit identifiable characteristics like gender and voice, so adapting a book might necessitate significant alterations to the way the story is written. In our murder mystery Terminal for example, we departed from our standard approach of having the listener be a silent main character, and gave the listener a character’s voice. Our format will allow authors to provide their readers with a brand new way to explore their work.”

He’s also hoping to shift readers’ attitudes. “Curling up with a good book is viewed as an activity, whereas the lure of an audiobook is often due to its ability to allow multitasking, for example while exercising or commuting.  But we want to engage the listener to such a degree that audiobook listening becomes its own activity. We want people to be able to close their eyes, shut everything out, and be completely transported to another world, engrossed in a story of which they themselves are a part.”

Now doesn’t that make you want to lock your screen, shut your gritty eyes, and dive in?

The BookTech Showcase (#BookTech) is a new element of the FutureBook Conference. Hosted by tech and culture journalist Molly Flatt, the session invites eight book tech companies to take part in a live pitch-off for a panel of industry and tech experts. A real-time vote will then determine the winners of the bronze, silver and gold FutureBook Awards. The overall winner will be named The FutureBook BookTech Company of the Year 2015.

The judges of the showcase, who will interrogate attendees from the selected book tech companies, are Hannah Telfer, Group Director of Consumer and Digital Development at Penguin Random House UK; Dan Kieran, CEO and Co-Founder of Unbound; and Eileen Burbidge, Partner at Passion Capital and one of the UK’s most influential tech venture capitalists.

In Molly Flatt's series on the contenders:

To book tickets, please visit the FutureBook Conference site.