VR for the Game Music Composer – What’s New?

google-cardboard_winifred-phillipsRecently I bought my first VR headset, and since then I have been adventuring in the world of virtual reality courtesy of Google Cardboard. For something as high tech and impressive as the VR experience, Google Cardboard makes the whole process easy, low-cost and accessible.  While Google provides instructions for users who’d like to make their own headsets from scratch using simple craft materials, I opted to purchase a version made by the good folks at IMCardboard.com.  Pictured to the right, you see me wearing their EVA 2.0 headset, made from a rubber-like material that’s very comfortable and lightweight.  Despite the more sophisticated look and materials, this headset still adheres to the Google Cardboard specs in terms of its design.  Coupling the immersive visuals offered by this headset with powerful music and sound from my trusty pair of Sennheiser HD 650 headphones, I was now ready to go adventuring in cyberspace.

I don’t know if 2016 is going to be the year of virtual reality, but since I’ve taken my first step into the VR world, I thought we could use this blog to touch base with developments in the VR world.  We’ll look at a brand new audio tech conference that should be particularly interesting to VR folks.  We’ll also get an overview of a couple of top audio technologies for virtual reality video games.  One of these new technologies pertains directly to Google Cardboard, so that’s where we’ll begin:

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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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A Composer’s Guide to Game Music in 2015

A Composer's Guide to Game Music, photo from the article by game music composer Winifred PhillipsHappy Holidays, everyone!  2015 has been a really memorable year for me, and a successful one for my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Writing this book not only allowed me to express my excitement about game music, but also opened up my world to a huge community of game music enthusiasts that I’m now proud to call friends.

I’ve been delighted to meet so many people who have read my book – from aspiring composers, to scholars and educators, to game audio pros.  It’s been tremendously gratifying!

I’d like to spend this blog recapping the events of 2015 as they related to my book, and I’ll also be sharing some book-related resources and tutorials that I created in 2015 (in case you missed them).  Happy Holidays, everyone, and thank you so much for your tremendous support this year!

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AES Convention: Interactive Music of the LittleBigPlanet Franchise

Winifred Phillips - Audio Engineering Society ConventionI was very proud to speak at three events during the Audio Engineering Society convention last week!  My hour-long presentation last Sunday was entitled “Interactive Music of the LittleBigPlanet Franchise: Dissecting a Complex, Multi-Component System.”

In addition, I spoke as a panelist during a game audio panel presentation on Saturday, and I also participated on Saturday as a game audio mentor in the awesome AES Speed Mentoring session, sponsored by the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services.  Attendees got a chance to ask loads of terrific questions of the assembled professional mentors, and it was great fun to answer game audio questions during the mentoring session!

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AES Convention: What’s New on the Show Floor

This past weekend, the Audio Engineering Society held its annual North American convention in the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. I was participating as an AES speaker, but I also knew that AES includes an exhibit floor packed with the best professional audio equipment from all the top manufacturers, and I didn’t want to miss that! So, in between my game audio panel presentation on Saturday, and the Sunday tutorial talk I gave on the music system of the LittleBigPlanet franchise, I had the pleasure of searching the show floor for what’s new and interesting in audio tech. Here are some of the attractions that seemed most interesting for game audio folks:

Fraunhofer/Cingo - Winifred PhillipsOne of the most interesting technologies on display at AES this year was Fraunhofer Cingo – an audio encoding technology developed specifically to enable mobile devices to deliver immersive sound for movies, games and virtual reality. Cingo was developed by the institute responsible for the MP3 audio coding format.  According to Fraunhofer, the Cingo technology “supports rendering of 3D audio content with formats that add a height dimension to the sound image, such as 9.1, 11.1 or other channel combinations.”  This enables mobile devices to emulate “the enveloping sound of movies, games or any other virtual environment.”   While I was there, Fraunhofer rep Jennifer Utley gave me the chance to demo the Cingo technology using the Gear VR headset, which turns Samsung mobile phones into portable virtual reality systems.  The sound generated by Cingo did have an awesome sense of spatial depth that increased immersion, although I didn’t personally notice the height dimension in the spatial positioning. Nevertheless, it was pretty nifty!

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Virtual Reality in the Uncanny Aural Valley

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Most visual artists in the game industry are familiar with a concept known as the “Uncanny Valley,” but it isn’t a problem that typically occupies the attention of sound designers and game music composers.  However, with the imminent arrival of virtual reality, that situation may drastically change.  Audio folks may have to begin wrestling with the problem right alongside their visual arts counterparts. I’ll explore that issue during the course of this blog, but first let’s start with a basic definition: what is the Uncanny Valley?

Here’s the graphic that is typically shown to illustrate the Uncanny Valley concept.  The idea is this: human physical attributes can be endearing.  We like human qualities when we see them attached to inhuman things like robots.  It makes them cute and relatable. However, as they start getting more and more human in appearance, the cuteness starts going away, and the skin-crawling creepiness begins.  The ick-factor reaches maximum in an amorphous no-man’s land right before absolute realism would theoretically be attained.  In this realm of horrors known as the “Uncanny Valley,” we see that the appearance of the human-like creature is not close enough to be real, but close enough to be really disturbing.  Don’t take my word for it, though.  Here’s a great video from the Extra Credits video series that explores the meaning of the Uncanny Valley in more detail:

So, now we’ve explored what the Uncanny Valley means to visual artists, but how does this phenomenon impact the realm of audio?

Spatial Audio – Reconstructing Reality or Creating Illusion?

The idea of an audio equivalent for the Uncanny Valley was suggested by Francis Rumsey during a presentation he gave in May 2014 at the Audio Engineering Society Chicago Section Meeting, which took place at Shure Incorporated in Niles, Illinois.  Francis Rumsey holds a PhD in Audio Engineering from the University of Surrey and is currently the chair of the Technical Council of the Audio Engineering Society.  His talk was entitled “Spatial Audio – Reconstructing Reality or Creating Illusion?”

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Francis Rumsey, chair of the AES Technical Council

In his excellent 90 minute presentation (available for viewing in its entirety by AES members), Francis Rumsey explores the history of spatial audio in detail, examining the long-term effort to reach perfect simulations of natural acoustic spaces.  He examines the divergent philosophies of top audio engineers who approach the problem from a creative/artistic point of view, and acousticians who want to solve the dilemma mathematically by virtue of a perfect wave field synthesis technique. Along the way, he asks if spatial audio is really meant to recreate the best version of reality, or instead to conjure up an entertaining artistic illusion?  This leads him to the main thesis of his talk:

Sound Design in VR: Almost Perfect Isn’t Perfect Enough

Rumsey suggests that as spatial audio approaches the top-most levels of realism, it begins to stimulate a more critical part of the brain.  Why does it do this?  Because human listeners react very strongly to a quality we call “naturalness.”  We have a great depth of experience in the way environmental sound behaves in the world.  We know how it reflects and reverberates, how objects may obstruct the sound or change its perceived timbre. As a simulated aural environment approaches perfect spatial realism and timbral fidelity, our brains begin to compare the simulation to our own remembered experiences of real audio environments, and we start to react negatively to subtle defects in an otherwise perfect simulation.  “It sounds almost real,” we think, “but something about it is strange.  It’s just wrong, it doesn’t add up.”

Take as an example this Oculus VR video demonstrating GenAudio’s AstoundSound 3D RTI positional 3D audio plugin.  While the audio positioning is awesome and impressive, the demo does not incorporate any obstruction or occlusion effects (as the plugin makers readily admit).  This makes the demo useful for us in examining the effects of subtle imperfections in an otherwise convincing 3D aural environment.  The imperfections become especially pronounced when the gamer walks into the Tuscan house, but the sound of the outdoor fountain continues without any of the muffling obstruction effects one would expect to hear in those circumstances.

Voice in VR: The Uncanny Valley of Spatial Voice

During the presentation, Rumsey shared some of the research from Glenn Dickins, the Technical Architect of the Convergence Team at Dolby Laboratories.  Dickins had applied the theory of the Uncanny Valley to vocal recordings. The sound of the human voice in a spatial environment is exceedingly familiar to us as human beings, much in the same way that human appearance and movement are both ingrained in our consciousness.  Because of this familiarity, vocal recordings in a spatial environment such as 3D positional audio can be particularly vulnerable to the Uncanny Valley effect.  Very small and subtle degradation in the audio output of a spatially localized voice recording may trigger a sense of deep-rooted unease.

Glenn Dickins of Dolby Laboratories

Glenn Dickins of Dolby Laboratories

As we embark on three dimensional audio environments for virtual reality games, the sorts of sound compression typically used in video game design may become problematic, particularly in relation to voice recordings in games.  While a typical gamer might not recognize that a vocal recording had been compressed, the gamer might nevertheless feel that there was something “not quite right” in the sound of the character’s voices.  Compression of audio subtly changes the vocal sound in ways that are usually unnoticeable, but may become disruptive in a VR aural environment in which imperfections have the potential to nudge the audio into the Uncanny Valley.

Music in VR: Some Good News

While I’ve talked in this blog before about the importance of defining the role that music should play in the three-dimensional aural environment of a virtual reality game, Francis Rumsey offers an entirely different viewpoint in his talk.  He thinks that when it comes to music, listeners don’t really care about spatial audio.  That might be good news for game composers, because this may mean that music may play no role in the Uncanny Valley effect.

Describing a study that was conducted to determine how both naive and experienced listeners perceived spatial audio, Rumsey showed that when it came to listening to music, the spatial positioning wasn’t considered tremendously important.  Sound quality was held to be absolutely crucial, but this desire was neither heightened nor lessened by spatial considerations. So does this mean that when it comes to music, listeners have an enhanced suspension of disbelief?  Are they willing to accept music into their VR world, even if it isn’t realistically positioned within the 3D space?  If so, then this would mean that non-diegetic music (i.e. music that isn’t occurring within the fictional world of the game) may not need to be spatially positioned as carefully as either voice or sound design elements of the aural environment.  This may prove useful to audio teams, who may turn to music as a reassuring agent in the soundscape, binding the aural environment together and promoting emotional investment and immersion.  However, music’s role in virtual reality may not conform to the way in which listeners react to spatially positioned music in other situations.  At any rate, the issue certainly needs further study and experimentation to clarify the role that non-diegetic music should play in a VR game.

For other types of music in VR, the situation may be much simpler.  Music doesn’t always have to occupy the traditional “underscore” role that it typically serves during gameplay.  In a “music visualizer” VR experience, spatial positioning may become entirely unnecessary, because the music is serving the purpose of pure foreground entertainment (much the same way that music entertains listeners on its own).  Here’s a preview of a musically-reactive virtual world in the upcoming “music visualizer” game Harmonix Music VR, created by the developer of the famous and popular game series Rock Band and Dance Central:

In Conclusion

Rumsey concluded his talk with the observation that near accurate may be worse than not particularly accurate… in other words, if it’s supposed to sound real, then it had better sound perfectly real.  Otherwise, it might be better to opt for a stylized audio environment that exaggerates and heightens the world rather than faithfully reproducing it.  I hope you enjoyed this blog, and please let me know what you think in the comments below!
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Studio1_GreenWinifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Video excerpt from my game music talk at the 137th Audio Engineering Society Convention

AES-Logo

I was tremendously honored to speak at the Audio Engineering Society’s convention last month, and I thought I’d share a video excerpt from my speech, which was entitled “Effective Interactive Music Systems: The Nuts and Bolts of Dynamic Musical Content.”  Many thanks to Steve Martz and Bob Lee at the Audio Engineering Society for organizing an outstanding event!

More about the AES:

The Audio Engineering Society is the only professional society devoted exclusively to audio technology. Founded in the United States in 1948, the AES has grown to become an international organization that unites audio engineers, creative artists, scientists and students worldwide by promoting advances in audio and disseminating new knowledge and research. Currently, over 14,000 members are affiliated with more than 75 AES professional sections and more than 95 AES student sections around the world. Conventions, which include scientific presentations, student activities, workshops, and exhibitions, are held annually both in the US and Europe. Additional conferences and regional summits are held periodically throughout Latin America, Asia, Europe, and North America.

Talk Description:

Effective Interactive Music Systems: The Nuts and Bolts of Dynamic Musical Content
Interactive methodologies have profoundly impacted the way that music is recorded, mixed and integrated in video games. From horizontal resequencing and vertical layering techniques for the interactive implementation of music recordings, to MIDI and generative systems for the manipulation of music data, the structure of game music poses serious challenges both for the composer and for the game audio engineer. This talk will examine the procedures for designing interactive music models and implementing them effectively into video games. The talk will include comparisons between additive and interchange systems in vertical layering, the lessons that can be learned from conventional stem mixing, the use of markers for switching between segments, and how to disassemble a traditionally composed piece of music for use within an interactive system.