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Posted: March 12, 2001
Written by: Tuan "Solace" Nguyen
These days, thereís not much to talk about in the sound card industry as itís pretty much dominated by Creative Labs and its SoundBlaster Live! Recently though, a few surprising competitors have attempted to step up against Creative and its onslaught with powerful offerings of their own. Most of those who have tried battling Creative Labs have either failed or retreated back to their roots which have no stems in the PC sound card business at all.
It was rather surprising to me when Hercules announced that it would be entering the soundcard market with its Game Theater XP. It wasnít that I doubted Herculesí efforts or its ability to deliver, but I did question its potential success.
For those of you who havenít heard of Aureal Semiconductor Inc. it was one of the pioneers in 3D sound for the PC. In conjunction with NASA, Aureal assisted in developing algorithms that simulate sound direction using only 2 front speakers. These algorithms are known as HRTF functions or Head Related Transfer Functions.
How HRTFs were designed is relatively simple. Researchers placed a dummy head into an echo free room and installed microphones into the ear canals. Then the sound source was moved around the head at a constant distance from the head. The difference between the acoustic spectral responses in both ears were measured and recorded. The set of these measurements is called a Head Related Transfer Function (a mathematical representation of how the human ear perceives sound). This process is repeated for different head sizes and ear sizes to come to a generalized HRTF model suitable for a wide range of audiences.
Piping a sound signal through a HRTF filter should make the sound appear to originate from the location of that specific filter. For example, a sound that is passed through a HRTF filter that was measured for 145 degrees behind you will make it seem as though it were there.
Although Aureal was very successful for with its own version of HRTF known as A3D, it eventually folded from stiff competition and legal actions from Creative Labs. This discouraged other developers from jumping out and introducing their own sound cards and only up until this year has competition stirred up again.
This is definitely one of the main reasons why I question Herculesí success in the sound market. Not only does it have to face competition from Creative Labs, but Hercules once looked death straight in the eye in the video card market. With a great deal of thought and resource, Guillemot Corporation lifted Hercules back up from its broken legs and itís once again a successful competitor in the video card arena.
Being successful in one area of the market doesnít mean that a company will be successful in another. A company that has fallen into such predicaments many times would be S3 Inc. S3 is a good example of a company expanding its horizons without a main focus only to end up losing strong ground in everything. The saying ďitís better to be really good at one thing than to be okay at a lot of thingsĒ couldnít be truer in S3ís case.
While Hercules doesnít look like it will be retreating from the video card market anytime soon, itís safe to say that it has not yet fully proven itself within the audio market. However, what we have today is a good sign that Hercules will be a strong player in the sound card business as well as the video card business.