Virtual Reality has stepped out of the realm of science fiction and Hollywood pipe dreams. Sooner than we think, we’ll be gaming with VR systems like Sony’s Project Morpheus and Facebook’s Oculus Rift. As a user interface for gaming, the VR helmet promises to offer a spectacular aural environment by virtue of binaural audio (you’ll find a good explanation of the binaural system here).
I recently read a great article on the Designing Sound site about the audio possibilities inherent in the VR technology, and I highly recommend it. The article discusses some of the profound differences between VR audio and traditional surround-sound audio for modern games. The binaural technology involves the use of two microphones positioned carefully to mimic the natural placement of human ears. These two mono signals allow the resulting stereo recording to convey positional information with great accuracy, making it possible for the final result to deliver an immersive “surround-sound” experience without the use of multiple speakers.
Early in my career, when I was working as a composer/sound designer for a National Public Radio drama series, I captured some rudimentary quasi-binaural recordings by employing two microphones tied to my body while recording to a portable Digital Audio Tape recorder. Thus equipped, I walked through various outdoor environments, rode on public transportation, situated myself in noisy crowds and let the people stream around me, all while recording with my two microphones. I remember that the end result was powerfully immersive. Technically, I didn’t fully achieve the true binaural effect. My microphones were not at “head-level” but were instead at hip-height and spaced a bit wider than a human head would be… so perhaps it might be considered a true binaural recording designed for a hobbit with a huge noggin. Nevertheless, the principle was very similar, and I remember how excited I was about the immersive realism of those recordings. The use of binaural recordings in VR should be an amazing contribution to the “reality” portion of the virtual reality experience.
One important question isn’t answered by the Designing Sound article – how will music be incorporated into such a system? This question seems to pose similar difficulties to those faced when incorporating music into a surround-sound mix. Do we mix the music in surround sound as well, so that the movements of players directly impacts the physical positioning of the music in the 3D world – or will this be too confusing? Conversely, do we keep the music in traditional stereo, and if so, should the music always occupy a position directly in front of the players’ faces, no matter which way they may turn their heads? It’s a complicated decision, and it looks like VR technology will only make this issue more complex.
The Oculus Rift is expected to hit the marketplace at the end of 2015, so we’ll have at least a little time to consider these problems before they’ll have to be solved.