Portal App Proves Spatial Audio Is More Than a Gimmick

Finally, a reason to use 3D sound

Key Takeaways

  • Portal uses Spatial Audio to create immersive ambient soundscapes. 
  • The effect is startling—you really do feel like you’re in a forest or on a beach. 
  • Spatial Audio is no longer a gimmick.
Portal app on iPad


Imagine sitting at your desk and hearing the sounds of a tropical forest around you. You hear a tropical woodpecker off in the distance to your right, and turn your head. Now it’s in front of you. It’s like you’re really there.

You just imagined Portal, an app that answers the question, “What’s the point of Spatial Audio?” Apple’s 3D immersive audio trickery really is impressive, but who wants to listen to music like that? And why would you want to make it seem like movie audio is coming from your iPad even when you turn your head? Portal uses this same 3D head tracking tech to make it feel like you really are in the middle of a relaxing soundscape. 

“Our surroundings have a profound impact on our thoughts and feelings, but we’re often limited to the environment we’re in other than the color we paint our walls, the pictures we hang or the pot(ted) plants we introduce,” Portal’s Stuart Chan told Lifewire via email. “Portal changes all that, by using immersive technology to virtually transform your surroundings and make you truly feel as though you’re in the midst of some of the most peaceful and awe-inspiring places in the world—to help you focus, sleep, and relax.

I’m So Darn Relaxed Right Now

Person listening to spatial audio via AirPod Pros


A funny thing happened when I first tried out Chan’s Portal app. The surround sound effect was impressive, and the audio was top notch, high-quality stuff. But it wasn’t until I started to move my head that I got the full effect. The hooting owl in the distance to my right really feels like it’s off to the right. But even that wasn’t the odd part.

Soon after starting up the soundscape (Redwood National Park), I felt more relaxed. It seems that even though you consciously know you’re being tricked, your brain doesn’t care. It just starts acting like you really are in a forest—minus the constant stress about mosquitos. 

“It's more than just recreating the sound, visuals, and lighting of these amazing locations. It’s about delivering an experience that’s so immersive and real it evokes the thoughts, feelings, and the sense of peace and calm you’d experience if you were actually there,” says Chan. 


Portal interface on iPhone


Portal has been around for some years, and the team has taken almost 12 months to bring Spatial Audio to the app. This included redesigning not only the app, but also the recording production. Portal commissioned Ambisonic Spatial Audio specialist Atmoky to help, and made new recordings to exploit the tech.

It’s not just sound, either. You can hook the app up to your smart home lighting to generate a fake dawn when you wake up in the morning, slowly bringing up the lights and playing an appropriate audio track. 

Spatial Audio seems like a gimmick for music. After all, we rarely sit and actively listen to music the way we used to when we bought vinyl LPs and CDs. It’s more like a background layer now. Then again, perhaps Apple is onto something. Imagine a Spatial Audio version of Brian Eno’s Ambient Music for Airports


Waterfall in Portal app


There are other uses for Spatial Audio, too. Portal’s surround-sound partner, Atmoky, uses spatial audio to make online meetings more realistic, by locating speakers in a virtual 3D space, making it easier to keep track of who’s talking. 

And imagine spatial augmented reality. Apple is all-in on audio AR, with all kinds of ambient notifications using AirPods. What if Siri were located in virtual space? And not only that, but because your iPhone knows where you are, it could match the echo of Siri’s voice to your environment. Get an iMessage in an old European church? It would reverberate like any real voice would. 

Spatial Audio can be gimmicky, but its immersiveness also can be surprisingly useful, taking advantage of our human abilities to create immersive environments. Maybe you don’t need to listen to hear a spatially remixed version of Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back to Me Now (trust me, you really don’t), but why not place audio, instead of just letting it sit in front of you the whole time?

I think it’s going to be big.

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