Why VR Sound Needs to Be as Immersive as the Visuals

August 22, 2016

3:30 pm

If you’ve never taken a trip to the virtual barber shop, I would recommend it. Click that link. I’ll wait.

Granted, the jokes and Italian accents aren’t the best, but this clip does a great job at the one thing that the barely emergent VR entertainment industry hasn’t found its feet in yet: 3D sound.

The State of VR Sound

Corey Takahashi, professor at Syracuse University, recently reviewed the Six Flags New Revolution VR Roller Coaster for NPR. The verdict is positive: It’s a fun trip that everyone should take at least once, and the software can be updated frequently in order to keep the ride fresh. But the sound was bad:

“It’s disorienting and exhilarating. The 2 1/2 minutes seem short as the ride ends — even though I feel mild nausea setting in. In the VR world, we land on what looks like an aircraft carrier.

The ride’s biggest shortcoming, however, was sound. Audio could have been as immersive as the visuals, though perhaps the designers figured that hearing other riders was enough.”

Sound Is Authentically Immersive

When interviewed by Engadget, Joel Susal, the director of Dolby’s virtual reality and augmented reality business, had this to say on the importance of VR and sound design:

“Audio, from an evolutionary perspective, is the thing that makes you turn your head quickly when you hear a twig snap behind you. […] You need techniques to nudge people to look where you want them to look, and sound is the thing that has nudged us as humans as we’ve evolved.”

Sound is an often ignored sensory experience that impacts whether viewers are engaged and immersed in a VR experience a lot more than many realize.

Good VR Sound Can Be a “Force Multipler”

Oculus knows the importance of sound: They licensed the tech for it, RealSpace3D Audio from VisiSonics, in 2014. In 2015, Sean Hollister at Gizmodo reviewed a series of different takes on 3D positional audio in Oculus. Some were “vastly enriched” by the audio while other demos failed to deliver the “bustle” to match the visuals.

Hollister emphasized the difference in feel between high-quality and low-quality 3d sound by invoking a voice of authority:

“Famed game and VR programmer John Carmack had been teasing for a while that positional audio would be a “force multiplier” for the feeling of presence you get from really good virtual reality, helping make the illusion of being someplace else that much stronger. Having tried it, I think I can see what he meant!”

VR needs to put a large focus on a new job title among VR creatives: The VR sound technician. Pairing an entirely virtual VR clip with a special effects from a sound design studio is difficult, and software designers can easily cut corners. But close your eyes and listen to the barber shop clip above again. Sound can be powerful, and the quality of 3D VR sound can make the difference between an okay experience and a breathtaking one.

Image: Flickr / Maurizio Pesce

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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