SoundFi: At the Movies is a new iOS app that offers immersive audio tracks, mixed for spatial sound, that you listen to with headphones in a movie theater. Once the movie starts, the app syncs up with the audio from the theater speakers to create a seamless experience.
I was invited to a screening of the original Halloween (1978), which had two available tracks: one with the original audio remixed for surround sound, and one that added the commentary from the Criterion Collection release of the film, with John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Jamie Lee Curtis. I opted for the commentary track, which was mixed to sound just over the shoulder, like they were in the row behind me, chatting about the film. It was a surprisingly intimate experience.
Getting a track is not a decision you’d make while standing in line for tickets. The app recommends using Wi-Fi to download the audio file to avoid using up your data, and the files seem to be pretty big; even though I started downloading the audio well over an hour before the screening, it didn’t finish in time and I had to borrow a preloaded phone. SoundFi hasn’t pinned down a price yet, but it will likely be around $2 for a single listen, with the track auto-deleting after the screening.
Wearing headphones while watching a full-sized theater screen felt luxurious, especially in a theater with wide cushy lounge chairs. It effectively blocked out all other sounds, leaving me with the feeling of being in a private theater. If you’re easily distracted by the fidgeting of other humans (I’ll confess to this), there’s definitely a benefit to being aurally cocooned.
On the other hand, there’s something lost when you entirely isolate yourself from the rest of the audience, especially for horror movies and comedies. I knew there were still people around, but it didn’t feel like we were watching a movie together. Without the experience of screaming or laughing as a group, why see a film in the theater at all?
There are use cases where the app would be useful, such as seeing a movie in a foreign language with SoundFi playing a dubbed audio track. Some genres might benefit from the experience — I imagine an action movie or thriller might be more intense with the vibrant up-close sound. You probably wouldn’t want a commentary track the first time you see a movie, but it would be a nice addition for a repeat viewing.
SoundFi fills enough of a niche that I can see it becoming an integral experience for a core set of users, although it doesn’t seem like it has enough broad enough application for every moviegoer. But for fans of immersive experiences, it provides a deeper and more focused means of engaging with a movie.