Jabil Annual Shareholder Meeting

Rising Above the Noise: The Role of Audio & Acoustics in Voice Recognition

Do you have an Alexa-like device in your home? Chances are if you don’t – you will before long. The smart home speaker market is growing at an astonishing speed. Recent data shows that while smart speakers were found in just 7% of homes in 2017, that number is projected to jump to 75% by 2020. In addition, a Google survey found that 41% of people talking to voice-activated products feel like they are talking to a friend or another person. Meeting this growing demand and driving both quality and enhanced user experience requires audio and acoustics design and manufacturing expertise. 

In this high-energy market, more analysis and thought are required in order to ensure success in system engineering and deployment, causing many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to more closely evaluate how they incorporate voice-activated technology into their products.   

For example, in audio and acoustics manufacturing, many companies limit their approach and focus on only the audio features of the product. They consider such variables as the performance of the chipset and the sensitivity of the microphone and speaker systems. But they fail to consider the performance of audio components in relation to the acoustic environment in which they operate—and this is where efforts often fall short.  

Let’s take a voice-activated washing machine for instance. A manufacturer may consider how well their audio circuitry performs on its own, but will they consider its sensitivity when picking up a human voice over the din of a vibrating washer?  

The biggest challenge is that there are no industry standards to guide OEMs in understanding the baseline performance attributes needed to ensure the successful integration of voice-recognition technology into their products. Each product company sets its own metrics and standards, and this inconsistency makes for an inadequate experience for the consumer. Industry standards would be a major factor in ensuring that high-quality products can be delivered with speed as well as allow companies to provide a consistent, high-quality experience for consumers. 

Examining Audio and Acoustics Manufacturing as an Ecosystem 

Audio technology like speakers and microphones cannot be selected in a vacuum. They need to be examined alongside the other materials that comprise the product and evaluated for their systematic integration and impacts. New components must be constantly researched to determine capabilities and performance in specific environmental and usage conditions. Factors such as housing designs and materials also need to be evaluated to ensure they will not impede the acoustic or electrical performance of the audio components of the product. 

To illustrate the point, let’s refer to the washing machine example. For effective voice recognition, noise pollution must be mitigated in the range of 100Hz to 4000Hz. By placing the washing machine inside an anechoic chamber, we can measure the impact and the acoustic noise it generates as well as adjust the frequencies and sound levels to measure the voice-recognition performance of the device in a controlled environment.  

Anechoic chambers test noise and frequency levels for various products including speakers and home appliances. This is a critical piece of audio and acoustics manufacturing.

Controlling Acoustic Performance with Metamaterials 

When issues that negatively impact acoustic performance are uncovered, new technologies can be applied to mitigate these factors. For example, materials can be applied to acoustically attenuate unwanted frequencies by absorbing them into the material surrounding the microphone. Metamaterials—materials that have engineered properties that do not occur in nature – are particularly valuable tools in this regard. 

Additive manufacturing is one process that’s being leveraged to improve acoustic performance. The metamaterial structure of some additive parts allows for the transformation and redirection of traveling soundwaves to pass through printed components and the technique is currently being tested by military groups for noise reduction.  

Two Overlooked Variables That Impact Audio and Acoustics

When validating acoustic performance, OEMs need to look beyond the chipset circuitry, microphones and speakers. There are a couple of other key areas that need attention and can be overlooked in the rush to market.

Variable 1: Structure
Skullcandy headphones showcasing internal components that provide high-quality sound to consumers.

In audio and acoustics manufacturing, all structural components should be analyzed. When the Jabil Audio and Acoustics team reviewed the product performance of premier headphone company Skullcandy, they considered all variables and their working relationships. Comfort, as well as sound performance and usage, were considered in the overall manufacturing process, and without that, low consumer satisfaction may well have been the result. Read the full Skullcandy case study

Variable 2: Cohesion 

Before deploying a product to market, a testbed must be developed to evaluate all performance factors and real-world usage. To that end, audio and acoustics systems integration in addition to mechanical performance must be examined before signing off on the acoustic viability of the solution. And as products become more complex, testing for cohesion becomes even more critical. Jeff Hutchings, vice president of product at Skullcandy, illustrated the point clearly in the recent case study, stating, “The level of technical complexity in our products is increasing exponentially. Today, it’s really a computer on your head. Having a partner that can play in that realm is really crucial.”  

Skullcandy Cuts Total Time-to-Market in Half

The Unified Vision of Audio and Acoustics Manufacturing 

When manufacturers broaden the scope of their viewpoint, they ensure that product performance meets high customer expectations that demand ever more sophisticated real-time interaction. Understanding the balance of audio and acoustics and how they interact both in the environment of the device and in the larger environment of end-user applications helps OEMs capitalize on a market that’s showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.  

Acoustics Manufacturing

High-performance audio is a key competitive feature in high-volume IoT and consumer products.

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Audio and Acoustics are vital technologies supported by Jabil’s Enterprise Technology Strategy, which invests in technologies driven by larger megatrends affecting end consumers both on behalf of Jabil and our customers.

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