VR Headphones Update: Video Game Music Composers

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio working on the music of the Dragon Front virtual reality game for Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Last year while working on the music of the Dragon Front virtual reality game for Oculus Rift (as pictured above), I gave a lot of consideration to the listening environment in which VR gamers would be hearing my video game music.  Since then I’ve served as the video game composer for several more virtual reality games (which will be released in the next few months).  I’ve also written a number of articles on this subject in order to share what I’ve learned with other game composers.  Last September I devoted two articles to a discussion of audio headphones designed specifically for the demands of virtual reality applications.  You can read those here:

In addition, two years ago I wrote an article that focused on some of the top difficulties associated with choosing the right headphones for VR.  You can read that article here:

Music Composers and Sound Designers in VR: The Headphones Problem

Now, I’d like to revisit the ideas discussed in those articles, so that we can see how the art of VR audio for headphones has progressed.

Let’s start with that article I wrote about “the headphones problem,” a critical issue regarding VR headphones that’s still an important consideration today.

The Headphones Problem

Illustration of the famous "headphones problem," from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.In June of 2015, I wrote an article about the inadvisability of using surround headphones for VR games and experiences.  At the time, most gamers were pointing to surround headphones as the best and most popular choice for awesome gaming audio.  However, surround headphones were never meant to be used with the kind of audio spatialization currently employed in virtual reality development.  VR games usually do not offer their audio in the famous surround-sound format, instead preferring the binaural format.  Surround headphones are typically designed to process non-surround audio into an imitation of surround sound, and this type of signal processing can play havoc with the expert crafting of a spatialized VR soundscape.

Depiction of the popular PlayStation VR, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer)Since my June 2015 article was published, there have been signs that this issue is being considered and addressed by audio professionals working in VR.  The official FAQ page for the PlayStation VR now advises users to either turn off surround sound mode or use standard stereo headphones when playing their VR games.  “Any surround sound generated by the headphones themselves will interfere with the 3D audio from the PS VR headset,” warns the official PS VR FAQ page.

While this warning is a step in the right direction, it isn’t echoed by similar warnings elsewhere.  A look at the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive web sites doesn’t reveal any advice regarding the use (or avoidance) of surround sound headphones.  Also, some video gaming sites are using terms like “full surround sound” to describe the best audio experience in VR, or are describing VR audio as “creating surround sound within a pair of headphones.”  These sorts of statements have the potential to lead consumers to draw the incorrect conclusion that surround sound headphones are the best choice for VR.

Last September I wrote two articles about headphones designed specifically for VR.  At the time, I focused on four headphone models offering differing features and technologies to enhance the enjoyment of audio in the VR environment. Most of these headphones were either in development or crowdfunding stages and not yet available to the public. Since I planned to post updates about those headphones in this article, I began by doing some research to see what had happened over the course of the intervening year. During this research, I noticed that one of the VR headphone models from my previous article was actively advertising its surround sound capabilities.  With that in mind, I thought that a bit of clarification would now be in order:

OSSIC X

Photo of the famous OSSIC X headphones, from video game composer Winifred Phillips' article about headphone tech for VR.After reading an early review article from PCWorld.com of the OSSIC X headphones (pictured left), I was struck by the emphasis on the surround sound capabilities of the headphones, and the (incorrrect) assumption on the part of the PCWorld reviewer that surround sound headphones are preferable for VR.  “(Surround-sound headsets are) definitely better than stereo headsets, especially for VR, but far from ideal,” writes PCWorld.

While the OSSIC X headphones include surround-sound compatibility, this function is not what distinguishes the OSSIC X in VR.  Instead, the Illustration of the OSSIC X multi-driver array, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).OSSIC X headphones feature a multi-driver array (illustrated right) that allows the audio content to be spatialized with a greater degree of accuracy than what is afforded by typical stereo headphones.  This multi-driver technology operates in tandem with the audio localization data in a virtual reality game, enabling the OSSIC X to effectively localize sounds to their exact spatial positions in VR.  However, in order for the OSSIC X to fully utilize its drivers for this purpose, it needs to be able to communicate with the game’s audio data by virtue of a plugin developed by OSSIC. “Developers will need to work with the OSSIC plugin to be able to make full use of the OSSIC technology,” says Sally Kellaway, OSSIC’s Creative Director.

So, what if the VR game we’re currently playing wasn’t designed to be compatible with the OSSIC plugin?  Will the OSSIC X still provide any extra spatial enhancement?  The official website lets us know that “any existing stereo content can be spatialized as a virtual soundstage.” A gamer might think, ‘binaural is essentially a stereo format, so maybe the extra spatialization will make this VR audio cooler!’  However, that kind of spatialization isn’t at all desirable for VR games, according to Kellaway.  “In the use case where the OSSIC X is being used with a VR game that is developed with a generic plugin, the (OSSIC X) can be put into “bypass” mode that basically just reverts them back to standard headphones. At this point, you don’t get the majority of the features, but they’re still extremely high quality headphones that have been developed to sound great and provide a passively isolated experience.”

Illustration of the "on-off" states for the popular surround-sound format in headphones, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.So, OSSIC advises us to check that our VR game is running the compatible plugin, and if it isn’t, to put them into “bypass mode” which will essentially turn any extra spatial processing off.  That’s an important detail to know about, and OSSIC is committed to keeping its user-base informed.  “The OSSIC processing and Headtracking can be switched on and off by the listener,” Kellaway tells us, “and it’s one of our key goals to educate our customers on how to use their headphones with all types of media.”

When used with a compatible VR game, the OSSIC X promises a mind-blowing sonic experience. Unfortunately, the production schedule for the headphones has been slower than originally anticipated.  While the Developer Kickstarter units were scheduled to be shipped in August 2017, developers are reporting that their OSSIC X developer units have only now begun to arrive. Meanwhile, OSSIC has ceased taking pre-orders, meaning that consumers can only add their information to a waitlist and hope for the best.

Now, let’s take a quick look at the three other VR headphone models I wrote about last year, to see how things have developed:

 

Plantronics RIG 4VR

Photo of the Plantronics RIG 4VR (designed to support several of the famous virtual reality gaming systems), from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.The Plantronics RIG 4VR (pictured right) has now hit retail.  These headphones are distinguished primarily by a color scheme that coordinates with the PlayStation VR and smaller earcups that don’t bump up against the PSVR headgear. TrustedReviews gave the Plantronics RIG 4VR four-out-of-five stars.  “Sure, you can get headphones that offer greater detail and dynamism,” writes Ced Yuen of TrustedReviews, “but if you want the two-way audio of a headset, and one that looks like it was made for your fancy new VR kit, this does the job nicely.”

CEEKARS VR

Photo depicting the popular anticipated CEEKARS VR headphones, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.Unfortunately, there’s bad news for anyone looking forward to the release of these headphones.  The CEEK VR company promised that the CEEKARS VR headphones (pictured left) would offer haptic feedback in the headband, as well as on-board physics-based audio rendering that would enhance the spatialization of VR sound without the need for any special software development kits or plugins.  However, in February of last year, the CEEK VR founder Mary Spio told the project’s backers that she anticipated there’d be “a few more months to go” before the headphones would be available, and that backers should request a refund.  The company has promised to run a new crowdfunding campaign in the indeterminate future when they are closer to launch.  In the meantime, the product has disappeared from the CEEK VR website.  It seems that the company has turned its focus to their CEEK Virtual Reality headset system.  Ironically, the headset is pictured on their website without any audio delivery of any kind (earbuds or headphones).

Entrim 4D

A photo of the Entrim 4D headphones, from the article written by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).These headphones (pictured right) were promised to offer us a very unique experience.  When wearing these headphones, our heads would receive a set of electrical signals that would stimulate our galvanic vestibular systems, creating specific sensations of movement by manipulating our sense of balance.  Unfortunately, since I wrote about these headphones last year, the manufacturer Samsung has released no subsequent information, and there’s been no news about any projected release date.  Considering that these headphones send electrical signals into people’s heads, we may be safe in assuming that they’ll require extensive safety testing prior to launch.  On the other hand, it may be that Samsung has very quietly ceased development on the Entrim 4D headphones project.  I’ll continue to keep an eye out for any news about this intriguing headphone technology.

Conclusion

So, that concludes this article that gathers together some of the developments in headphones designed for VR.  Please let me know what you think in the comments below!

 

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio.Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent projects are the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution and the Dragon Front VR game for Oculus Rift. Her credits include games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Video Game Music Composers: New VR Headphones

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

As a video game composer, I’ve been working in my studio composing music for quite a few virtual reality projects lately (as pictured above), so I’ve been thinking a lot about issues related to audio in the VR environment.  Those issues include how gamers experience the audio content through various headphone models.  In this article, I thought we’d take a look at three newly-announced headphone models that are targeting the VR marketplace, and see what new technologies are being proposed to facilitate the best and most awesome VR audio experiences.  So, let’s get started!

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Video Game Music Composer: Music and Sound in VR Headphones (Part Two)

Photo of game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio, from the article "Video Game Music Composer: Music and Sound in VR Headphones (Part Two)"My work as a video game composer has lately included some projects for virtual reality games (more info on that in the coming months), and as a result I’ve been thinking a lot about the awesome potential of VR, and have also been writing lots of articles on the subject.  Earlier this month I began a two-part article that focuses on the experience of the end user, and the gear with which they’ll be enjoying our video game music and audio content (you can read part one here). So, let’s now continue our discussion about the new generation of headphones designed specifically for VR!

In this article, we’ll be discussing two headphone models:

  • Entrim 4D
  • Plantronics RIG 4VR

So let’s get underway!

Entrim 4D headphones

Photo of the Entrim 4D, from the VR headphones article by Winifred Phillips (award-winning game music composer)This March at the famous SXSW convention in Austin, Samsung showed off a piece of experimental technology promising to bring a new dimension of immersion to virtual reality.  It’s designed specifically to complement their popular Samsung Gear VR device, and it works by virtue of electrodes that send electrical signals right into the wearer’s head!  As if virtual reality itself weren’t futuristic enough, now we’re talking about a device that zaps us to make the VR feel more real!  It’s called Entrim 4D (pictured right).  We’re talking about it here because (among other things) Entrim 4D is a pair of audio headphones built specifically for VR.

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Can Game Music and Sound Combat VR Sickness?

dizzyVirtual Reality Sickness: the nightmare of VR developers everywhere.  We all know the symptoms.  Nausea.  Headache.  Sweating. Pallor.  Disorientation. All together, these symptoms are a perfect recipe for disaster. No one wants their game to make players feel like they’ve been spinning on a demon-possessed merry-go-round.  So, how do we keep this affliction from destroying the brand new, awesome VR industry before it even gets a chance to get off the ground?

In response to this possible VR apocalypse, the top manufacturers have taken big steps to improve their popular devices.  Oculus improved the display on its famous Rift device, Valve introduced a motion-tracking system that helps us orient ourselves and not get nauseous when wearing the Vive, and PlayStation VR incorporated a wider field of view designed to make players feel more comfortable. Even with these efforts, players are still reporting motion sickness symptoms, and the creators of the VR systems have responded by pointing the finger of blame at game developers.  So, if the developers of VR games have to solve the problem, then how can the music and sound folks help? Can game music and sound combat VR sickness?

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Game Music Composer Guide to Upcoming VR Events

VR-Future-Is-Now

In a new report released January 5, 2016, the research analysis firm SuperData issued a forecast of the future of Virtual Reality gaming in the coming year.  Among the results: 5.1 billion dollars are predicted to be spent on VR hardware in 2016, and 55.8 million consumers will have adopted some version of a VR platform by year’s end.  The report also predicts that inexpensive VR gaming on mobile devices will prove the most popular in the short-term, dominating the market in 2016. The report also suggests that small indie studios may benefit by jumping into VR development early (since the top publishers are proving to be a bit more reticent). These are awesome times to be in the video game industry, and there will certainly be lots to learn as we go boldly into the world of VR.  In this blog, I’ve collected information about upcoming video game conferences – some that are already famous and some that are brand new.  These events might help us to learn more about our role in the creation of VR music and audio.

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Music Composers and Sound Designers in VR: The Headphones Problem

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Over the past few months I’ve taken several opportunities to blog about the role that music and sound may play in the virtual reality systems and games that have become famous in the media of late, and which will begin to hit retail during the holidays this year.  Today I encountered a very interesting research paper that warns of a possible problem that may face game developers as they attempt to deliver three-dimensional audio for virtual reality experiences.  I explored some issues regarding three-dimensional game audio in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, and as game composers, I thought that audio for VR might be of particular interest to us.  So, I’m going to share what I learned about the issue from this research paper, including a conclusion which may indicate an imminent problem for some VR gamers.

All of the popular VR systems rely on headphones for audio delivery, but only one (the Oculus Rift) will include built-in headphones as a part of the system.  The rest will allow the consumer to use their own headphones, and even the Oculus Rift allows for its attached headphones to be removed so that the user can replace them with their own “high quality” headphones.

The Oculus Rift, shipping with detachable headphones.

The Oculus Rift, shipping with detachable headphones.

So, here’s where things start to get tricky.

What do the words “high quality headphones” mean to the modern gamer?  Well, the gaming website Kotaku held a survey last year so that its hardcore gaming community could vote to determine the very best gaming headphones.  The winner (by a wide margin) was the Astro A50 7.1 Wireless Surround Sound headset, followed by the Logitech G930 Wireless 7.1-Channel Surround Sound headset.  Two surround-sound models had come out on top.  Of the other headsets in the survey, most were stereo rather than surround, and the only other surround-sound headset in the survey was wired rather than wireless.  Clearly, the community had told us what “high quality” meant – and that was a surround sound experience.

The Astro A50 Wireless 7.1 Surround Sound Headset.

The Astro A50 Wireless 7.1 Surround Sound Headset.

Now, here’s where we hit upon the problem, and it’s explored in the paper “Challenges of the Headphone Mix in Games,” written by Aristotel Digenis (lead audio programmer with FreeStyleGames), who presented his paper in February 2015 at the Audio Engineering Society’s International Conference on Audio for Games in London.  Virtual reality games will be offering binaural audio to simulate a fully three-dimensional listening environment.  While binaural audio can present an awesome level of immersion and realism, the technology of binaural sound isn’t the same as that of surround sound.  In fact, they’re fundamentally different.  If gamers have opted to use their own “high quality” surround sound headsets, then they may be experiencing a lower-quality sound environment than the game developers intended.

Many of the highest quality surround sound headphones include the ability to process an incoming non-surround audio signal into a compatible surround-sound mix (essentially imitating surround sound by virtue of some built-in digital signal processing).  If this processing were applied to the binaural soundscape of a virtual reality game, the effect would cause the immersive quality of the audio to deteriorate rather than improve.  Gamers would be left wondering why their stellar top-of-the-line headphones are making their VR game sound lousy.

So far I haven’t heard any reps from the three VR system manufacturers address this issue, and gamers should definitely be warned that “high quality” headphones for VR will need to be stereo, rather than surround.  VR enthusiasts who are hoping for the ultimate virtual reality experience may need to purchase some excellent stereo headphones, if they don’t already own them.  Without a warning about this issue, some VR gamers may be set up for a nasty sonic surprise.

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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning game music composer with more than 11 years of experience in the video game industry.  Her projects include Assassin’s Creed Liberation, God of War, the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and many others.  She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.