virtual reality game audio Asbjoern Andersen


Noted audio director Garry Taylor, from Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe, recently gave a talk about the possibilities and challenges for audio in virtual reality – from a non-technical perspective. I’m really happy to be able to share it here on the A Sound Effect blog, and without further ado, here’s Garry Taylor:
 
This is a talk given at the VRX Europe Conference in London in May 2016 to a non-technical audience. It was not aimed at audio designers or engineers, and so I didn’t go in-depth into any of the technical issues. My goal was to get across to a lay-audience some of the many issues VR development teams may face, in terms of audio, when developing content.

– Garry Taylor. Audio Director, WWS Creative Services Group, Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe.


 

Someone asked me recently what the difference was between audio for TV based games and audio for VR.  After giving it a bit of thought, I came to the conclusion that getting it wrong on a TV is mildly annoying, but getting it wrong on VR and the player will want to kill you.  By that I mean badly implemented audio in VR can be so off-putting, it can seriously hinder people’s acceptance of their virtual reality, to the point that it may put some people off completely, and this is a big problem.  

Michael Abrash at Oculus said that 3D sound in VR is ‘not an addition, it’s a multiplier’. Everybody talks about VR in terms of ‘presence’ and ‘immersion’. The truth is that without a certain level of competence in audio design, there is no presence.  What’s more, because it is a multiplier, there is an extremely fine line between what we would call presence, the illusion that you’re actually there, and annoyance.

The truth is that without a certain level of competence in audio design, there is no presence

Our teams have been experimenting to find out what works, and what doesn’t, in terms of audio.  A lot of the work we’ve done revolves around the player’s acceptance of their virtual environment and the sounds that emanate from it.  We’ve made lots of mistakes, but by making them, we’ve learned where the boundaries are, and how far we can push things before they break.

 

Engineering Immersion

One of the most fundamental problems any developer with no experience of audio on VR will have is externalising sounds.  Let me explain what I mean.

If you listen to any film or TV show that has a narrator, you’ll notice that the sound of the voice of the narrator, due to the way in which it was recorded, sounds very different from the sound of the people you’re actually seeing on screen.  The narrator is in effect, the voice inside your head, and it’s this that we need to avoid if we want things to sound like they’re in the virtual environment.

Next time you watch a film or TV show listen for it, and notice the difference between perspectives.  The narrator’s voice sounds a lot fuller and richer.  Generally, it’s recorded closer than ‘on set’ dialogue.  With a condenser microphone, the closer you are to the microphone, the bassier the recording will be, due to something called ‘the proximity effect’.

Although this is a tad simplistic, if there’s a lot of bass in a voice, your brain will tell you it’s close.  If we want dialogue or indeed any sound to sit in a 3D space, and to sound like it’s part of that space, we need to ensure that the perspectives are convincing.

How we give players information about distance is absolutely critical for them to be able to localise something accurately in VR

If something is close, it needs to sound close, and if something is far away it needs to sound far away.  How we give players information about distance is absolutely critical for them to be able to localise something accurately in VR.

If you were to shut your eyes, you’d usually be able to tell what sort of room you were in just by listening to how sounds tail off within it.  When working in VR, we have to recreate that acoustic behaviour in our virtual reality in order for it to be convincing. There’s a delicate balance between the volume of the sound waves that travel directly to your ears, and the ones that bounce around the room, and we use the perceived loudness of the sound, the length of the reverberation, as well as the ratio between the direct and the indirect sound to judge the size and type of space we’re in and the distance between us and whatever it was that made the sound.

Not only that, but we also have to accurately model how our own heads affect the sounds we hear. We use something called Head Related Transfer Functions or HRTF which gives us the ability to make sounds appear as though they’re behind us, or in fact any direction, including above or below us.  These HRTFs when coupled with head-tracking are very very convincing.

This is different to how we’ve done audio for games in the past.  Now, these might seem like very minor things, but when we get it wrong, it’s little things like this that jar with people.  They might not know why something isn’t quite right, but it will flag something up in the back of their mind that says ‘this isn’t convincing’.  Audio for VR can be difficult like that.  To do it right requires a decent toolset and knowledgeable and experienced sound engineers who know about psychoacoustics; how the brain interprets sound.

 

Information

Audio’s function within any game, film or any other medium is either to give the player or viewer information or to influence their emotional state.

3D Audio is a very powerful way of communicating information, be it information conveyed through dialogue, or information about their environment through directional sounds, but there are limits to the amount of auditory information that can be processed by the brain.

Now imagine that a 3rd person was giving another talk on something else in that corner at the same volume.  That’s where you hit a wall.

You can hear me speaking from this stage.  There’s nothing else really going on, vying for your attention.  Imagine someone else was doing a talk in that corner of the room on something else with their microphone at the same volume.  You would probably be able to pick up limited information on both talks, just about.  Now imagine that a 3rd person was giving another talk on something else in that corner at the same volume.  That’s where you hit a wall.  You wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the 3 separate voices, they would come together to form a single incoherent mess.  It would annoy you.

Walter Murch, film editor, called this the ‘Law of Two and a Half’.  One or two sets of footsteps, for example, can easily be isolated by the brain, but 3….instead of being individual elements, 3 becomes a group of things happening, and out goes your ability to distinguish individual elements.

We’ve found that these limits of the brain to process multiple audio cues together must affect how we design our titles, and the events or situations that happen within those titles.  Too much going on will disorientate the player, or stop them making sense of the information presented to them.  This could be dialogue, or it could be the positions of enemies trying to shoot you, or important audio cues the player needs in order to progress through a game.  Any more than 2 positional cues at a time, and the player may lose the ability to accurately place them in a space.

Because of this, we need to make sure that audio considerations are taken into account at the early design stage of any project, and care must be taken to respect the limits of the brain’s ability to process auditory information.  

Having said that, if you want to briefly disorientate the player on purpose, it can be used to great effect, but like anything, you need light and shade.  

 

Bending Reality

One of the more interesting things we’ve found is that whilst audio can help to make or break presence or immersion, it also allow us to bend reality without breaking it, and in some instances mask problems in other areas.

What happens if the player decides to stand up?

In one of our titles called London Heist, the player is a passenger in a van, driving down a road.  Now, there’s nothing stopping the player opening the door and leaning out or putting their head out of the window, and when they do, they hear the wind rushing past them, as you would expect.  However, what happens if the player decides to stand up?

Well, we could create a barrier that would stop the player’s camera from going through the roof of the van, but messing with people’s perception of movement is a dangerous thing, and can cause motion sickness which could put a lot of people off.  However, if we allow the player to put their head through the roof, to break reality, we must also make their experience of doing so consistent with what they would expect if they could actually do it.  So when they do, they also hear the wind rushing past them.  This is surprisingly acceptable.  In some cases, good audio design allows us to ‘paper over the cracks’, and in certain circumstances, as long as the audio is consistent, liberties can be taken in the virtual world.
 


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Listen to the player

Most developers have been thinking about how their sound and music functions within VR.  We’ve also been thinking about what sounds we can take from the player, and what we could do with them.

PlayStation VR has a microphone on the bottom of the visor.  This allows us to capture sounds or speech from the player, and either incorporate it into the world, for example voice chat, but also it allows us take the sound, manipulate that data and then use that data to control certain parameters within the game.

For example, in the London Heist, there’s a drink on the dashboard.  What if the player decides they want to pick it up and drink it?  Obviously, they can’t really drink it.  That would be silly.  But they will try.  And if they do try, having the world react in a believable way will increase the sense of immersion.  One of our technical designers, SImon Gumbleton came up with a technique of measuring the power of the microphone input, and then using it to trigger a drinking sound.

Again, audio can paper over the cracks.  Audio, this time from the player, will allow another level of interaction between the player and the virtual world.

How can the player affect the world through the sounds that they make?

So the question our teams should ask is; instead of the player just listening to the world the developers have created, how can the player affect the world through the sounds that they make?
 

Linear VR Video

Before I go, I want to speak briefly about audio for linear VR video, as opposed to interactive content.  At the moment, most teams I know that are creating VR video are doing it in Unity, or some other game engine.  This, at the moment, is by necessity.  There is no support for VR in any of the off-the-shelf audio packages at the moment.  There are though quite a few plugin manufacturers working on tools to allow teams to design audio for VR, and as time progresses those tools will improve.

Ambisonics is a 40 year old sound format for encoding 3D audio that up until recently was considered a bit of a relic, but it translates perfectly to VR, so expect it to make a resurgence in the coming years.  This will be helped by Google’s adoption of it for VR and 360 video on YouTube, which was rolled out a couple a weeks ago.  The new MPEG-H format also supports 3D audio, but it’s very new and no applications support it at the moment.  The same goes for AC4.

 

So, to sum up, the switch from developing for screen-based entertainment to VR is not straightforward.  It’s literally a whole new world, and we’re still finding out the rules.

However, because of the fragility of the player’s acceptance of the virtual world within VR, audio should be an integral part of the design process, to be considered from the very start of a project, from both a creative and technical point of view.

If immersion and presence is your goal, your sound team will be the ones that will have to deliver it.

 

Please share this:


 

A big thanks to Garry Taylor for his insights on audio in VR!

 
 
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    Every clip is embedded with 18+ fields of Soundminer, BWAV, and MacOS Finder metadata.

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    Towns is a new collection by Badlands Sound that features ambiances recorded in American Towns, and all are seamless five minutes long loopable ambiances.

    Summer Parks is one of many sound libraries in the Towns collection. It contains 25 ambiances of parks including walking trails, water parks, and zoos! You will hear ‘Summer’ in these with a wide variety ambiances from the active birds in the park to the loud monkeys in the town’s zoo and the presence of air space in all recordings.
    Other sounds include heavy rain lading on a Wooden Roof Picnic area with rolling thunder and many kids playing in a large pool at a water park.

    These ambiances were recorded with professional equipment including Sound Devices 702t and a pair of Sennheiser MKH 8040’s in ORTF configuration inside a Rycote Stereo Windshield with Connbox. There are not a lot of high-quality town ambiances out there – This library will be excellent for expanding your library and your future projects!

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    Transport features dozens of vehicles recordings – cars, trains, trucks, planes, motorbikes, etc., – that have taken place in a urban environment, covering your needs for background transportation. The goal of this library is to help sound editors quickly find that background traffic that is often needed. All the recordings are ready to be used in a non-intrusiveness way in any media where vehicles play a remote or central role.

    Key features:

    • 53 ambience recordings of traffic: avenues, streets, freeways, cobblestone roads, roundabouts, wet asphalt, state highways, tunnels, distant and diffuse traffic, parking lots. Some are loopable. 7 of them are in Ambisonics.
    • 43 recordings of cars passes by. In roads, state highways, tunnels, with wet asphalt, from several perspectives and at different speeds.
    • 61 recordings of commuter trains, regional trains, express trains, high speed trains, freight trains, underground. Departures, arrivals, passes by and interior sounds. Even a toilet flushing.
    • 18 tracks of planes overflying and roaring.
    • Several recordings of buses, trucks, vans, tractors, bicycles, ferries, motorcycles and Formula 1 race cars.
    • 99% of the recordings are completely clear and free from any birds and unwanted noises in the background.
    • Gear used: Zoom F8, Sennheiser MKH 8040s in ORTF, Sennheiser MKH 8040/8050 + MKH 30 in M/S, Sennheiser 418, Sennheiser Ambeo and Sony D100.
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    • In Metal Corral, get a visceral collection of metallic screeches from a corral on a working cattle ranch. Wail on the paddock sections with a t-post and hear guttural resonances from 50 interlocking sections. Hear latches clacking with frenetic vigor and clanging metallic booms. Hear thick, tonal growls resonating like fog horns and single squeaks stuttering with real grit. Hear gates grating with the visceral sound of an iceberg tearing through the Titanic.
    • This library offers you an extensive collection of metals painstakingly performed to bring these inanimate objects to life and transform them into intensely gritty living textures.

    2% FOR THE ENVIRONMENT & CARBON NEUTRAL:
    • Two percent of the price of this library is donated to an environmental cause, as an “artist royalty” for the planet!
    • Carbon offset credits were purchased to offset my field recording travel for this library.

    KEY FEATURES:
    • Grating gates
    • Gritty tonal squeals
    • Short high squeaks
    • Thick, tonal growls
    • Clattering latches
    • Massive booms
    • Please note: the “Pitch Shifted Demo” was made to demonstrate the potential of the sounds in this library. However, Metal Corral does NOT include pitch shifted sounds, only mastered field recordings.
    FILE LIST & METADATA:
    • View larger version or Download CSV
    • A spectrogram is included for each audio file. Double click on the photo to enlarge.
    MORE INFO:
    • Read 40+ testimonials for Thomas Rex Beverly Audio
    • Read my Field Recording Mastering Rules and learn more about how these recordings were mastered.
    • Browse the Library Info Master List to compare specs on all my libraries.
    • Browse the Metadata Master List to search my entire catalog.
    • MD5 and SHA 256 Checksums are included for each zip file in my catalog. Use these hashes to check the integrity of your downloaded files.
    GEAR USED:
    • Sennheiser MKH8040 and MKH30 in MS
    • Sound Devices 702
    • Sound Devices MixPre-6
  • SCI-FI BUNDLE consists of 2454 high-quality futuristic sound effects and was created with game devs, animators and sounds designers in mind.

    Bundle covers a broad range of sound effects: UI/HUD, Robotics, Ambiences, Drones, Weapons, Doors, Objects, Misc and more.

    Sound effects from this bundle were used on projects like: Archer Season 10, Robot Will Protect You, Encodya, Final Space and many more.

    PMSFX SCI-FI Bundle
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One thought on “How to unlock the creative power of audio in VR:

  1. Thanks for this post!

    Michael Abrash’s quote about 3D sound (‘not an addition, it’s a multiplier’) reminds me of a quote from Akira Kurosawa, the famed film director, sharing his thought about the relationship between sound and image: “sound is that which does not simply add to but multiples the effect the image.”

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