Audio has always been a crucial and necessary component of video games and movies. But with the advent of virtual reality, the importance of sound and how it can enhance the life-like experience for someone wearing a VR headset has only increased.
GeekWire had a chance to visit Oculus’ engineering office in Seattle to test new “spatialized” audio technology that engineers have developed to help create more immersive VR experiences.
We met with Oculus Audio Design Manager Tom Smurdon and Software Engineering Manager Pete Stirling, who both helped build “Near-Field HRTF” (head-related transfer function) and “Volumetric Sound Sources,” two new tools now available for VR developers on the Rift SDK.
Smurdon is a video game veteran, having worked on audio teams for games like Halo 2 and Guild Wars. He said developing audio technology for virtual reality is something much different.
“We’ve just found that audio is so much more important in VR,” he said.
When you’re playing a traditional video game or watching a movie, the audio typically comes on a plane from a screen in front of you or around a room.
But with a VR headset and attached headphones, audio becomes a much different in regard to head tracking and experiencing content in a 360-degree space. Developers can place sounds around you and prompt you to move around beyond your field of view.
“You can provide a full 3D audio experience that is consistent for all end users,” Stirling noted. “It can allow you to hear things in front of you, behind you, or above you, just with two headphones.”
With “Near-Field HRTF,” developers are able to control sound as it moves closer and farther from someone’s head with great precision. Previous technology only allowed developers to control sounds more than one meter away from a user. I tried a demo, which you can view below, that showed how “Near-Field HRTF” works. It was pretty creepy hearing a whispering voice move from my left ear to the right.
“Volumetric Sound Sources,” meanwhile, is all about how sound can be heard in different volumes. For example, a bee buzzing past your ear will sound different than a train rumbling past you.
This tool lets developers assign a radius to different sounds and control the sound’s source. Here’s how that works:
“These new features really take [sound in VR] to the next level,” Stirling said.
I had a chance to try out the new audio technology that Smurdon’s team dropped into First Contact, a game developed by Oculus and meant to get users comfortable with the Oculus Touch controllers.
First off, it was one of the most fun video game experiences I’ve ever had. I was reminded again about how cool virtual reality can be. Here’s how the gameplay looks:
I took off the headset after 15 minutes of gameplay and needed a second to chill. It was an incredible sensory experience that totally took me into another world.
While playing, I didn’t think too much about how the audio was engineered — but perhaps that is the point. Whether it was firing off a bottle rocket that whizzed around my head or jingling a noisemaker near my right ear, the audio technology helped engulf me into this virtual world and made it feel that much more life-like.
“In VR, audio has become more of a multiplier,” noted Smurdon, who got his career started working on audio for Seattle bands like Soundgarden and Foo Fighters. “If the audio is done correctly, it makes the whole experience two or three times better than it was before.”
Stirling noted that he and his colleagues at Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014, are working hard to give developers tools to create better VR content.
“We want virtual reality to be fantastic and we know how important audio is,” he added. “These tools make such a big difference.”
Oculus opened its Seattle office last year and also has more than 100,000 square feet on the east side of Lake Washington in Redmond for research and development. It reportedly is set to move into additional space near its existing office across from Safeco Field.
Oculus is one of many VR companies in the region; more than 40 virtual/augmented reality companies call the region home, according to a recent report. One VR entrepreneur who recently moved to the area called it “the center of everything gaming and everything VR.”
Facebook, meanwhile, last year opened a big new engineering center in Seattle with room for 2,000 people. In December the company scooped up the Arbor Blocks, a pair of six-story structures that total 384,000 square feet of office space developed by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate. Just a month later it took the 150,000-square-foot 1101 Westlake building.
Facebook first set up shop in the Seattle area in 2010.