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The State of Directional Audio in Virtual Reality

The State of Directional Audio in Virtual Reality
culture

Operating from the standpoint that sound makes up 50 percent of the VR experience, content creators are starting to hold it in higher regard

Ido Lechner
  • 21 january 2016

Though the public gaze has centered around virtual reality, with Forbes, CNET and various other publishers touting 2016 as the ‘year VR goes mainstream,’ content makers are still wrapping their heads around the new techniques required to create compelling narratives that fully utilize VR’s potential. In film and television, sound is a powerful yet subliminal element that can set tone and suspend disbelief, the latter being of utmost importance in virtual reality when trying to produce a sense of presence.

Google’s Cardboard division, the company’s VR software and platform development team, has recently announced an update to the SDK which will allow developers to incorporate ‘spatial audio’ into their apps. Similarly, Dolby just revealed a partnership with top tier VR camera maker Jaunt to integrate its Atmos surround sound technology into the world of virtual reality.

Rather than breaking down into disparate channels, Atmos’ ‘spatial’ audio will be achieved in VR by being treated like an object, allowing content creators to actually place recorded sounds anywhere within a three dimensional space. To that effect, users will hear some things louder than others, depending on where their heads are turned, and will intuitively realize the directions where sounds are coming from.

“We’ve realized that audio plays a huge component in terms of delivering a compelling and truly transportive VR experience,” says Jaunt CEO Jens Christensen. “We actually think audio is maybe 50 percent of the whole experience.”

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Wherein previous endeavors of making digital environments tangible relied on specialized treadmills for walking around or haptic feedback accessories for touching, sound is a deliverable that is considered a given by most—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve attention. Christensen holds spatial audio to a high regard because he realizes how integral it is in crafting the deep levels of immersion that content creators are after.

On a totally subconscious level, we interpret a great deal of information from what we hear. Given that sound isn’t blatantly apparent because it doesn’t manifest visually, however, we tend not to realize how crucial a role it plays in our day-to-day lives. Take a moment to listen to yours: Can you discern the noises you’re hearing? Where are they coming from? How loud are they relative to each other?

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Google’s push toward this type of audio is a huge victory for the average consumer who can’t afford an Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony Morpheus or other high grade headsets. With just a smartphone, Google will effectively mimic the presence achieved by these top-tier headsets at a fraction of the cost.

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Thanks to directional audibility, objects low to the ground will sound louder to shorter folk while taller objects will have the opposite result. Makers will be able to achieve the Doppler effect with moving objects such as whizzing bullets or speeding cars—ensuring that virtual reality will soon start to feel (and sound) more real.

Google Cardboard | Dolby’s Atmos for Virtual Reality

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