Music in Virtual Reality

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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.

 

GameFAQs Game Audio Poll

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On the community forums at GameFAQs.com, users are comparing notes regarding their favorite method of listening to game audio.  This includes an interesting poll, wherein users can vote for their preferred video game listening environment.  The winner?  Gaming headsets, which pulled 30% of the vote.  This was followed by 5.1 surround systems, TV speakers, 7.1 surround systems, with an external stereo system trailing the field.

Why does this matter to a game composer?  Our method of monitoring our mixes should reflect what the majority of listeners will experience in-game.  If we primarily hear our mixes through stereo monitors, we’re experiencing the music in a way that matches the listening environment of only a small percentage of our target audience.  We’ll have to make sure that we check our mixes through multiple audio delivery systems, with a particular emphasis on headsets.

Source: GameFAQs

E3 2014: What’s New in Audio Gear

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Next week, the game industry will gather together for their annual trade fair extravaganza. I’m curious about the anticipated game announcements and press conferences, but as a game audio professional, I’ll be very interested in the consumer products and services that will be demonstrated on the E3 show floor next week.  Here are some of the E3 exhibitors and products that may be of interest to game audio folks:

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ASTRO Gaming / Skullcandy

ASTRO Gaming hasn’t given any indication of what they’ll be showing at E3 this year, but it’s a good bet that their “Watch_Dogs” A40 & A30 headsets with included speaker tags will be on display there.  “Watch_Dogs” is an action-adventure game from Ubisoft that just came out last month, and Ubisoft will be showing the game in its booth on the show floor.  The PC headphones come with branded “Watch_Dogs” speaker tags, which are decorative magnets that affix to headphones in order to make them more stylish.  E3 Booth Location:  Concourse Hall, Meeting Room 513.

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dreamGear

This company isn’t an audio specialist – instead, it offers a range of game accessories including controllers, headsets and power solutions.  In the audio category, they’ll be featuring their Universal Elite gaming headset at their booth.  E3 Booth Location: West Hall, Booth 5422.

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Exeo Entertainment

The product of interest to us here – the Psyko surround-sound headphones – claim to deliver  “the highest level of audio directionality and natural sound reproduction over any other 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound gaming headset.”  The headphones have five distinct speakers and a subwoofer embedded in each earcup, according to Exeo. The resulting effect is purported to emulate true surround sound more faithfully in the headphone monitoring environment. E3 Booth Location: West Hall, Booth 5336.

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GamesterGear

The headset manufacturer GamesterGear will be debuting a new line of headsets in its booth at E3.  The Falcon console and PC gaming headset series will be put through its paces during the booth’s daily “Beat a Pro” Tournaments, which offer booth visitors an opportunity to compete against the professional gamers of TeamGamesterGear.  The Falcon headsets feature “the industry’s largest 57mm and 30mm drivers” and a force-feedback technology that the company has dubbed “BASS QUAKE.”  E3 Booth Location: South Hall, Booth 3047.

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Immerz

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Immerz, Inc. is the developer of the KOR-FX game peripheral that will be officially announced at this upcoming E3.  The KOR-FX device is a peripheral that resembles a hi-tech vest that you wear while gaming.  The vest converts audio content into vibrations that are delivered to specific areas of the chest via transducers.  This is meant to render the audio content of a game more impactful and immersive throughout the course of play.  It should be interesting to see this device demonstrated on the show floor.  E3 Booth Location: South Hall, Booth 2855.

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Plantronics

Plantronics is an audio communications equipment manufacturer known for supplying the headsets worn by astronauts during the first moon landing.  Their computer and gaming headsets line will be on display on the E3 show floor.  This will likely include their relatively new Plantronics Rig headset with swappable mics and EQ control.  Also, this will be an opportuntity to see and hear the newest RPG created by Richard Garriott (creator of the renowned Ultima series). Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues will be on display here, and will give booth visitors an opportunity to test out the newest Plantronics headphones while listening to the soundscape of Garriott’s newest creation.  E3 Booth Location: South Hall, Booth 515.

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Polk Audio

This audio technology manufacturer specializing in speakers and headphones for audiophiles will be showing a new soundbar and two new headphone models specifically created for the Xbox One.  Polk describes the N1 Soundbar as having “four immersion modes for a tailored and immersive listening experience.”  It’s 4Shot for Xbox One and 133t for Xbox 360 are a pair of headphones that will “deliver individualized audio unparalleled in the category.”  All three products will not be available for purchase until this fall.  E3 Booth Location: West Hall, Booth 4012.

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Turtle Beach

This headphone manufacturer has joined forces with Lucasfilm to create a line of headphones decorated with characters and artwork from the Star Wars sci-fi series.  The designs will be unveiled at E3, allowing booth visitors to get a look at the assortment of swappable speaker plates that will allow the owner to customize the look of these headsets.  E3 Booth Location: South Hall, Booth 1447.