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!

The Audeze iSINE Virtual Reality Headphones

Photo of the iSINE Headphones for the popular virtual reality platform, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.The iSINE Virtual Reality Headphones made their debut in January of this year at the famous Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  These in-ear headphones (pictured right) ship with both HTC Vive and Oculus Rift compatible cables (in addition to a standard audio cable).  At first glance the iSINE Virtual Reality Headphones seem to offer no specific or overt accommodation for VR, apart from the handy cables.  A quick review of the web site reveals a headphone technology that relies on simply delivering great audio quality that exceeds the capabilities of other competing headphones.  However, when we dig a little deeper into the specifications, we see that the core technology of the iSINE headphones has a very specific application in the world of VR audio.

Planar magnetic technology is touted as the driving factor behind the iSINE’s ability to deliver more convincing 3D audio for VR.  Most headphones on the market today, from the cheapest to the most high-end audiophile models, deliver their sound by virtue of the most popular driver type: the standard dynamic driver, also known as the moving coil driver.  In a standard dynamic headphone design, a wire coil is attached to a diaphragm and suspended in a magnetic field.  The audio signal is passed through the coil in the form of a current that causes the coil and the attached diaphragm to vibrate back and forth, generating the sound waves that we hear.

Photo of a cross-section of driver from the iSINE Virtual Reality Headphones, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.The Audeze iSINE headphones eschew this type of driver in favor of the less commonly used planar magnetic technology, which you can see in this internal view of the iSINE headphones (pictured left).  In the planar magnetic driver configuration, wires are embedded directly within a larger membrane.  The embedded wires are surrounded by two sets of oppositely aligned magnets that are pointed at each other, creating a magnetic field.  When the audio signal current passes through the wires embedded in the membrane, a second magnetic field is generated.  This field reacts to the field created by the magnets and the opposing forces generate vibration in the membrane, which creates the sound we hear.

To visualize this explanation a little better, let’s watch this video from headphones expert Tyll Hertsens (editor at InnerFidelity.com), who takes apart another pair of planar magnetic headphones to show us the inner workings of the technology:

For the purposes of delivering convincing VR audio, the primary advantage of a planar magnetic driver is to be found in the way in which the sound travels. Sound from a standard dynamic driver will typically travel in a Depiction of the famous spherical wave front, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer)spherical wave front, originating from a single point and traveling outward in all directions (pictured right).  In sharp contrast, the sound from a planar magnetic driver travels in parallel waves that proceed only in the direction in which they are pointed.  According to Audeze, these parallel, unidirectional sound waves are crucial to the enjoyment of 3D audio in the VR realm.  The spherical wave front of typical headphones delivers the sound waves in a cone shape that interacts with our ear canals in ways that wouldn’t occur in the natural world.  Depiction of the planar wave front, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer)The planar wave front (pictured left) delivers sounds into our ears in a straight line instead of a conical shape, and this comes across as much more natural and realistic. Also, the more natural interaction of the sound waves with our ears allows us to more easily localize the origin of sounds in our environment, leading to a more satisfying and convincing 3D soundscape.

After their release in January of this year, senior editor Vlad Savov spotlighted the excellent spatial positioning afforded by the iSINE headphones in his review article for TheVerge.com. “If you want soundstage — the sensation of music and sound surrounding you; the feeling of distance, depth, and separation between the various instruments and sound sources — the iSines have it in abundance.”

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the iSINE headphones is the focus on planar magnetic technology as an important enhancement for satisfying three dimensional sound.  As far as I can tell, Audeze is the only company connecting this specific technology with the idea of better spatial positioning for VR audio.  It will be interesting to see if other audio gear makers adopt this technology for VR applications.

Mantis VR and the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap

Illustration of the Mantis headphones used in conjunction with the popular PlayStation VR headset, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.While the Oculus Rift VR headset shipped with a set of on-ear headphones built directly into the device, the same could not be said for its competitors.  The HTC Vive and the PlayStation VR arrived in the marketplace without any audio delivery system, leaving users to pull together their own solutions. Wearing a separate set of headphones on top of a VR headset could cause discomfort as the two head-mounted devices squeezed against each other, and the extra dangling cables could be a hassle.

Now help has arrived in the form of two audio solutions for the Vive and the PSVR that are designed to attach directly to their respective VR headsets.  The Mantis VR (developed by the Bionik gaming accessories company) is designed with spring-loaded clips that attach to the headband of the PlayStation VR.  The Mantis VR was designed in the same black and white color scheme of the PSVR headset, allowing the Mantis headphones to blend in and look like a built-in component of the device.  While they look attractive, there is little information provided regarding their audio specifications, which should lead us to assume that these headphones are of a basic, serviceable variety without any technological tweaks to accommodate VR audio.  Here’s a video in which Bionik head of marketing Crystal Duggan demonstrates the Mantis PSVR headphones:

Photo of the Deluxe Audio Strap for the famous Vive VR headset, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.The Vive Deluxe Audio Strap is the solution developed to address the lack of built-in headphones for the HTC Vive.  On the surface, the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap is a dramatically different solution than the one Bionik devised.  As we recall, the Mantis VR consists of a pair of petite headphone cups mounted on short swing-arms that clip to the sides of the PSVR.  In contrast, the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap completely replaces the entire head-strap assembly of the Vive with a brand new version.  Here’s the instructional video on the installation of the Vive Deluxe Audio Strap, produced by the makers of the HTC Vive:

Again, the audio quality of these headphones is never addressed by the manufacturers, and according to a review in PCWorld.com, “Deluxe Audio Strap’s sound quality is “good enough” for most people and purposes.”  Definitely not a glowing review, but the quality of the audio may not really be a major consideration for either the manufacturers or the intended audience. It seems that this device was meant simply to address an oversight in the original design of the HTC Vive.  Audio is now provided, and that may be enough to make some Vive owners happy.

 

Conclusion

So, that concludes this article that gathered together some of the new developments in VR headphones that might interest us as video game music composers.  In my next article, we’ll be revisiting some VR headphones that were announced last year.  We’ll check in with the OSSIC X, the CEEKARS VR, the Entrim 4D and the Plantronics RIG 4VR, and we’ll see how development on these VR headphones is progressing.  Until then, 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.

Understanding Audio in VR – A Game Music Composer’s Resource Guide

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her game composers production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

When I’m not at work in my studio making music for games, I like to keep up with new developments in the field of interactive entertainment, and I’ll often share what I learn here in these articles.  Virtual reality is an awesome subject for study for a video game composer, and several of my recent projects have been in the world of VR.  Since I’m sure that most of us are curious about what’s coming next in virtual reality, I’ve decided to devote this article to a collection of educational resources.  I’ve made a point of keeping our focus general here, with the intent of understanding the role of audio in VR and the best resources available to audio folks.  As a component of the VR soundscape, our music must fit into the entire matrix of aural elements, so we’ll spend this article learning about what goes into making expert sound for a virtual reality experience. Let’s start with a few articles that discuss methods and techniques for VR audio practitioners.

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VRDC 2017 takeaways: VR music for the game composer

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips, at work in her music production studio - from the article about music for virtual reality / VR.The Game Developers Conference is always an awesome opportunity for game audio experts to learn and share experiences.  I’ve given presentations at GDC for a few years now, and I’m always excited to hear about what’s new and notable in game audio.  This year, the hot topic was virtual reality.  In fact, the subject received its own dedicated sub-conference that took place concurrently with the main GDC show.  The VRDC (Virtual Reality Developers Conference) didn’t focus particularly on the audio and music side of VR, but there were a couple of notable talks on that subject.  In this article, let’s take a look at some of the more intriguing VR game music takeaways from those two talks.  Along the way, I’ll also share some of my related experience as the composer of the music of the Dragon Front VR game for the Oculus Rift (pictured above).

Inside and outside

The talks we’ll be discussing in this article are entitled “Audio Adventures in VR Worlds” and “The Sound Design of Star Wars: Battlefront VR.”  Here’s a common issue that popped up in both talks:

An illustration of music in the popular VR platform, from the article by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).Where should video game music be in a VR game?  Should it feel like it exists inside the VR world, weaving itself into the immersive 3D atmosphere surrounding the player?  Or should it feel like it’s somehow outside of the VR environment and is instead coasting on top of the experience, being conveyed directly to the player?  The former approach suggests a spacious and expansive musical soundscape, and the latter would feel much closer and more personal.  Is one of these approaches more effective in VR than the other?  Which choice is best?

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Video game composers can make you smarter! (The music of Dragon Front) Pt. 3

Winifred Phillips, video game music composer, pictured at the GDC 2016 display for the Dragon Front virtual reality game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome to the third (and final) article in this three-part discussion of how video game composers (like us) can make strategy gamers smarter!  We’ve been exploring the best ways that the music of game composers can help strategy gamers to better concentrate while making more sound tactical decisions. During this discussion, I’ve shared my personal perspective as the composer for the popular Dragon Front strategy game for VR.

In part one, we discussed the concept of ‘music-message congruency,’ so if you haven’t read that article yet, you can read it here.  In part two, we explored the meaning of ‘cognition-enhancing tempo’ – you can read that article here.  Please make sure to read both those articles first and then come back.

Are you back?  Awesome!  Let’s launch into a discussion of the third technique for increasing the smarts of strategy gamers!

Tension-regulating affect

From the article by game composer Winifred Phillips, an illustration of 'psychological affect.'In psychology, the term ‘affect’ refers to emotion, particularly in terms of the way in which such emotional content is displayed.  Whether by visual or aural means, an emotion can not be shared without some kind of ‘affect’ that serves as its mode of communication from one person to another.  When we’re happy, we smile.  When we’re angry, we frown.

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Video game composers can make you smarter! (The music of Dragon Front) Pt. 2

Pictured: Winifred Phillips (video game music composer) in her studio working on the music of the Dragon Front virtual reality game.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our three-part discussion of how video game composers (such as ourselves) can make strategy gamers smarter!  In these articles, we’re looking at ways in which our music can enhance concentration and tactical decision-making for players engrossed in strategic gameplay.  Along the way, I’ve been sharing my personal experiences as the composer for the Dragon Front strategy game for virtual reality.  Over the course of these articles we’ll be covering three of the top concepts that pertain to the relationship between music and concentration.  In part one, we discussed the concept of ‘music-message congruency,’ so if you haven’t read that article yet, please go check it out and then come back.

Are you back now?  Good!  Let’s move on to the second big technique for increasing the smarts of strategy gamers!

Cognition-enhancing tempo

As video game composers, we create music in a wide variety of tempos designed to support the energy of play and the pacing of the game’s overall design.  From leisurely tracks that accompany unstructured exploration to frenetic pieces that support the most high-stakes combat, our music is planned with expert precision to shape the excitement level of players and keep them motivated as they progress.

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Video game composers can make you smarter! (The music of Dragon Front) Pt. 1

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music studio working on the original score for the Dragon Front virtual reality game.

Can video game composers make you smarter?  Well, video gaming can be a pretty cerebral activity, requiring astute problem-solving skills and disciplined concentration in order to excel.  That’s especially true for any game built around strategic and/or tactical gameplay, such as real-time or turn-based strategy, tactical shooters, multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs), and online collectible card strategy games.  To succeed in these types of games, players must assess the current situation and formulate a plan that accounts for future developments and variables.  Without this type of tactical forward-thinking gameplay, a gamer has little chance to win.  So, can music enable gamers to think tactically, stay focused and make smart decisions?  Over the next three articles, I’ll try to answer that question, while exploring the role of music in enhancing the concentration of strategic/tactical gamers.

Along the way, we’ll be taking a look at some scholarly research on the subject, consulting the opinions of experts, and I’ll be sharing my experiences creating the music for the recently released Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage software.  We’ll check out some music tracks I composed for the popular Dragon Front game (pictured at the top of this article), and we’ll discuss methods for supporting and enhancing concentration for strategic/tactical game players.  But first, let’s take a closer look at the Dragon Front game.

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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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