How a Hong Kong rocket scientist invented a groundbreaking sound system

Tech start-ups are not just for 20-somethings – ‘uncle’ Daniel Chiu is applying know-how he used to help Nasa to the world of entertainment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 4:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 11:08pm

When Daniel Chiu On-kwok, 69, and Elliott Yuen Wai-kuen, 62, joined a start-up contest at the Hong Kong Science Park in Sha Tin earlier this year, they were astonished to find their rivals were all in their early 30s or fresh university graduates.

Dressed in suits, the retirees showed up with the sound system technology Chiu invented, but they looked rather out of the place among the casual T-shirts and funky pants. The “kids” even helped the “uncles” transport amplifiers and equipment and wished them good luck.

“We were the oldest contestants, and it was quite funny to see others either born in the 1980s or 1990s,” Chiu told the Post at the office of his company, X-Spatial, in the Science Park. “Their stories are a young start-up, but ours is a retiree-start-up. Ha ha.”

The “uncles” won the game.

Born in Hong Kong, Chiu migrated with his family to the United States in the 1960s and worked as a mechanical engineer after finishing university. For two decades he developed technology for rocket engines and spacecraft for Nasa. He also specialised in satellite, information and technology, and communication systems.

A big fan of chamber music, Chiu spent “every penny” on hi-fi, but he could find nothing that produced the effect of live music.

We are able to recover the lost signals and trick the human brain to believe that the sounds were three-dimensional virtual reality
Daniel Chiu On-kwok

“While researching rocket engines, I came to understand more of the dynamics of vibration and acoustics,” Chiu recalled. “So why not apply my findings on acoustic dynamics into developing a sound system?”

After returning to Hong Kong in the late 1990s, he shuttled between the city and his primitive laboratory in Guangzhou and focused on researching and developing his own sound system.

“I am so into it that I can work in the laboratory three or four days in a row without sleeping,” he said. “My wife once said research and development was more important than her – then she said goodbye to me.”

He ended up losing the marriage but gaining a revolutionary sound enhancement technology that counted Hollywood’s Dick Clark screening room among his first customers last year.

“Traditional speaker sounds are two-dimensional. I describe them as like paper dolls – they sound flat and remote,” Chiu said. “But we are able to recover the lost signals and trick the human brain into believing that the sounds are three-dimensional virtual reality.”

This means the technology restores to the original 3D sound from a 2D audio source and then through X-Spatial’s proprietory technology the sound is augmented into 4D. This results in listeners experiencing the “live” emotional expression of the performers.

Chiu said the sound enhancement technology was compatible with existing audio systems such as Dolby, DTS, THX and IMAX, in cinemas.

But his concept was so groundbreaking – perhaps too far ahead – that no one knew what he was doing back then. Even before and after foraying into Hollywood, he has stumbled countless times when pitching his technology to potential investors.

“We don’t entertain Mickey Mouses,” Chiu recalled one potential client telling him.

Yuen, founding chief executive of fashion store Shanghai Tang and former chief executive of Puma in Shanghai, joined X-Spatial recently as a business director and shareholder as the company raised US$2.5 million through angel funding.

Yuen said the application of the sound enhancement system was not confined to cinema – it can be applied to a wide range of purposes such as on robots, inflight entertainment services, home entertainment, film production and even online music.

“We want to provide good music at an affordable price,” Yuen said.

Asked how he maintained his unwavering passion for innovation, Chiu said he was never the best of the bunch but was always willing to try when opportunities arose.

Reaching 70 next year, he was hardly the type of person you associate with a retiree. “I am a start-up uncle,” Chiu said.