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

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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.

E3 2015 for the Game Music Composer

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The Electronic Entertainment Expo is upon us once again, so I’ll be spending this blog exploring what we can expect to see and learn that’s most relevant to the field of game audio from this year’s big convention.

Virtual Reality

The impending releases of three virtual reality systems should make things especially interesting on the E3 show floor, and it will be awesome to see and hear what these systems have to offer.  Let’s take a look at what we might expect from the three top VR systems, as well as a possible surprise VR reveal that might happen next week.

Project Morpheus

PlayStation president of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida has already announced that several internally developed VR games for the Morpheus headset will be unveiled during E3, and we also learned during the 3D Audio in VR talk at the Shayla Games VR Jam in Denmark that the Morpheus will now incorporate an audio system involving Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF was discussed in this blog during a previous post about audio in VR).  It should be interesting to see if this HRTF system is implemented into the hardware that will be demonstrating on the E3 show floor.  The latest model of the Morpheus doesn’t include built-in headphones, as you’ll see in this video demo that TechCrunch released last month.  The demo discusses the capabilities of the hardware, including its audio functionality:

Oculus Rift

The newest model of the Oculus Rift, the famous Crescent Bay, offers 3D audio through a set of built-in headphones.  Here’s an interview that Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe gave to Gamecrate during the ever-popular Consumer Electronics Show 2015 about the new VR audio features of the Oculus Rift.

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive doesn’t currently offer built-in headphones, but the developer assures us that the final consumer version will offer integrated 3D audio.  The current model offers the user the option to connect their own high-end headphones to the Vive.  E3 attendees may get to see how aurally immersive that can be by playing Arizona Sunshine, a game designed for the Vive and set in a genre so famous and pervasive that its appearance in the VR world was inevitable: the apocalyptic zombie shooter.  The game was announced on May 21st by its developer, Vertigo Games, and it’s a good bet that the game could be showing on the E3 exhibit floor.  Here’s a look at a trailer for Arizona Sunshine:

Microsoft VR System

Finally, the rumor mill is swirling around speculation that Microsoft may officially reveal its own virtual reality headset system during this year’s E3.

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Audio exhibitors at E3

The Electronic Entertainment Expo is an opportunity for consumer audio hardware manufacturers to show off most of their top products, so let’s take a look at what this year’s exhibitors are offering.

Astro Gaming

Game Audio Products:

  • A50 XBox One Edition Headset, 2nd Generation
  • A50 Astro Edition Headset & TX, 2nd Generation
  • A40 Xbox One Edition Headset + MixAmp M80
  • A40 Astro Edition Headset + Mixamp, 2nd Generation
  • A40 Astro Edition Headset + Mixamp, 2nd Generation
  • A40 PC Edition Headset, 2nd Generation
  • A38 Astro Bluetooth Wireless Headset
  • MixAmp Pro, 2nd Generation

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dreamGEAR

Game Audio Products:

  • Prime Wired Headset for PS4
  • Universal Elite Wired Headset

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Performance Designed Products

Game Audio Products:

  • Afterglow Karga Headset for Xbox One
  • Afterglow Fener Premium Wireless Headset for PS4
  • Afterglow Kral Wireless Headset for PS4
  • Afterglow Nur Headset
  • Afterglow PS4 Bluetooth Communicator

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Plantronics

Game Audio Products:

  • RIG Gaming Audio System
  • RIG Surround Sound Gaming System
  • RIG Flex
  • GameCom 788 Gaming Headset
  • GameCom 388 Gaming Headset

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Polk Audio

Game Audio Products:

  • Striker Zx Xbox One Gaming Headset
  • Striker P1 Multiplatform Gaming Headset
  • N1 Gaming Sound Bar
  • 4 Shot Xbox One Gaming Headset

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Turtle Beach

Game Audio Products:

  • Turtle Beach Elite 800X Gaming Headset for Xbox One
  • Turtle Beach Stealth 500X headset for Xbox One
  • Turtle Beach XO Seven Pro
  • Turtle Beach XO Four Stealth
  • Turtle Beach Call of Duty Online PC Gaming Headset