Asbjoern Andersen


Virtual reality has been a LONG time coming. I remember reading about it back in the early 90s where it was being hailed as the next big thing – and then 20+ years passed, and nothing much happened, at least in the eye of the general public. However, with devices such as the Oculus Rift nearing completion, it looks like we’re finally getting there.

With this revolutionary new approach to entertainment and immersion just around the corner, what does this mean for the way audio is created and used?

I decided to reach out to Varun Nair for some insights. He’s co-founder of Two Big Ears, an Edinburgh-based company developing audio solutions for games and virtual reality. Here is what he has to say about audio for virtual reality – and the unique possibilities and challenges it offers:

 

Hi Varun, where does virtual reality currently stand in terms of audio?

It is still early days, in terms of technology, workflow and design principles. While the art of designing sound would still be similar (as would the art of image composition, storytelling, etc), virtual reality as a medium needs exploration. In the past two years we have seen some incredible work on the visual front, with thousands of people around the world experimenting with the medium. Comparatively, there’s very little experimentation happening with audio and VR.

The technology is still catching up. Most VR users and developers use headphones, given that it is a personal experience. Binaural audio, which works great over headphones is a perfect fit for VR. Many of the long standing problems with real-time synthesised binaural audio can be overcome thanks to the head and positional tracking sensors and algorithms in VR devices.

Binaural or positional 3D audio makes a huge difference to the virtual reality experience. There was a lot of commercial work around binaural audio in the 90s but it has since retreated into academic and research spheres. Much of our work at Two Big Ears is making such technology (and many more) work really well across game engines, operating systems and hardware devices. It’s not just about having a straight up binaural panner, but also about advanced audio algorithms that can help create a more realistic experience.

From a design perspective, audio for VR is very much an open book. Many of the game design principles (especially those related to FPS games) crumble in virtual reality. I’m curious to see what can be uncovered for audio. For example, I’ve personally found the idea of depicting the scale of objects through sound very intriguing. With binaural audio, the space around the player becomes another parameter to play with. There’s lots that needs to be defined for mixing too. Creating a real-time binaural mix over headphones is very different to mixing on speakers.

How does sound for a 360 degree film work? Nobody is entirely sure! That’s the exciting part!

Outside the scope of games, there’s much work that needs to be done with VR films too. How does sound for a 360 degree film work? Nobody is entirely sure! That’s the exciting part!

 

What are some of the challenges presented by audio in virtual reality?

Designing visuals for VR needs to be treated as a different process (rather than upgrading existing content to support VR) and I’m convinced that the same applies for audio too. A lot of the techniques we take for granted, such as designing sounds for menu screens or HUD elements might not be applicable any more. Quite a few of the VR games are leaning towards user interface elements existing within the virtual space around the player. Could sound be used to draw attention to them?

Another area that has seen almost no discussion is music. How do we treat a background score? Must it be diegetic and exist within the scene? Could it just be a ‘normal’ stereo track in the background? Foley is an interesting area too. Could it be used to help achieve presence in a scene?

Technologically there are challenges too. Game audio needs a real push across the whole stack. We are working hard at it and so are our competitors =) The next few years are going to be an interesting time for audio.
 

As a sound designer for VR, how do you achieve presence and spatialization in your sound design?

For spatialisation we have to rely on technology. Binaural rendering and room modelling makes a massive difference. Although, the spatialisation effect itself can be greatly enhanced by the quality of the sounds. I don’t just mean recording quality, but the timbre and envelope of the sound. As humans, we’re better at localising sounds with higher mid and high frequency content. HDR mixing and ducking can help massively in clearing up a mix.

As for presence — I’m not entirely sure yet. Spatialisation helps, but I feel generative, procedural and dynamic content can greatly improve the experience. I’m personally interested in seeing how input devices for VR evolve. I’m always looking for ways to map sensor data to sound!
 

Battle of the virtual reality platforms
There are several large platforms in development for virtual reality. Best-known is Oculus Rift, a Kickstarter-funded project that ended up being purchased by Facebook. Their latest ‘Crescent Bay’ prototype includes headphones.

Project Morpheus is Sony’s take on virtual reality, announced in March 2014. This platform will be, at least initially, exclusively for the PlayStation 4.

Oculus VR – the company making the Oculus Rift – is also behind the Samsung VR, which offers a novel approach where a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phone is used as the device display. Final pricing and availability has not been announced for any of the devices.

 

Outside of games, what are some of the areas where you envision VR being used – and how does audio fit into those scenarios?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about education and it is quite easy to see the impact VR can have on it. I also think it can redefine audio post-production, especially with VR movies. We would have to lean towards using game audio tools, but in many ways they can be inadequate for a structured and curated experience.

Being a long time advocator of procedural and generative audio techniques, I think there will be a strong need for those techniques too. Somebody just needs to create the tools that will help us move beyond vehicle, impact, rain and gun-shot models. It is tough work, but it needs getting done. If I had more time in a day, I’d be spending all of it on that!
 


Popular on A Sound Effect right now - article continues below:

 

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    44.1 GENERAL LIBRARY (VOLUME II) (2.06 GB, $32)
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Need specific sound effects? Try a search below:
 

If sound designers want to get started doing sound for VR, how do they go about it?

It is tough to design for VR without a device — so getting access to one would be a good place to start :) The audio tools exist and are constantly being improved upon. I think it would be great for sound designers to also jump into the video game development process, with game engines like Unreal Engine 4 that have a low price barrier — picking up those skills can help when communicating with the rest of the game development team too.

We definitely need more sound designers breaking new ground, failing, iterating and pushing the medium forward.

Another approach would be to work with the many VR enthusiasts around the world. There are lots of great indie projects around the web and I’m sure they would all value the contribution of a sound designer.

We’ve found that a number of the VR developers around the world care a lot about audio and they are willing to experiment with new technology and techniques.

We definitely need more sound designers breaking new ground, failing, iterating and pushing the medium forward.

 

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About Varun Nair
Varun has worked on over 400 projects in films, games and advertising and music. He’s the co-founder of Two Big Ears, a company developing advanced audio solutions for games and VR. They offer 3Dception, a unique binaural audio and room modeling solution for game engines and middleware.
 
 
 
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    Metamorphosis is a huge collection of recorded source, synthesized material and hybrid sounds. The library was created to cover a wide range of themes, with rich textures, aggressive impacts and a large selection of pass bys, bass drops, pyrotechnics and many more types of material.

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  • Foley Foliage Sweeteners HD Play Track 811 sounds included, 85.5 mins total $45

    Foliage Sweeteners are great for characters creeping around in the bushes, running through the trees, or just walking through the park.  You can add specific environmental sounds to your ambiences, such as individual leafy tree branches that dip into frame, or cattails and bushes reacting to a gust of wind. These sounds are also great for nature documentary, whether you have a squirrel climbing a tree, a bear plowing through a forest, a cheetah stalking from the underbrush, or just a cow eating grass.

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Explore the full, unique collection here

Latest sound effects libraries:
 
  • Welcome to “MOTION MODE”, an intense collection of sounds to induce movement and evoke excitement in your production.

    You will find whooshes, transitions, noises, granular textures, movements, stutters and hits with a powerful Sci-fi feel.

    Special attention was put in the dynamics of the sounds to ensure the creation of an energetic pack aimed to enhance atmospheres, add movement and enrich musical compositions.

    If you liked some of my previous libraries like “Dodge this” and “The Transition” you are gonna love this one.

    29 %
    OFF
    Ends 1597183199
  • Huge deep and textural organic whoosh by’s. These are un-altered but a total blast. Want more fun, just (again) compress and pitch to fit, and hell, maybe add a little distortion.

    A great collection of organic sliding whooshes. They sound great, have lots of movement and are almost always complicated movements not just simple whoosh by’s.

    20 %
    OFF
    Ends 1597183199
  • Assorted firework recordings, ranging from individual explosions to multiple fireworks going off at the same time.

    This collection has lots of nice sharp bangs, and includes a variety of firework sounds recorded close up and from a distance.

  • A small collection of horror sting sound effects, ideal for spooky, scary, Halloween and horror uses.

  • Bundle 2019 InspectorJ Bundle Play Track 4150 sounds included, 337 mins total $67.99

    4 InspectorJ SFX libraries created in 2019 at a permanent 50% discount, including:

    44.1 General Library (Volume II) (2.06 GB, $32)
    Party Pack (1.98 GB, $40)
    Sewing Machine (2.73 GB, $32)
    Toilet Flush (381 MB, $32)

    For a discounted total of only $67.99 (Originally $136 if bought separately)

    44.1 GENERAL LIBRARY (VOLUME II) (2.06 GB, $32)
    A hand-picked variety collection of 1,000 sound effects covering numerous categories at 44.1kHz and 16/24-bit stereo recordings. Here are some sound categories that can be found in Volume II:

    85+ Seamless Loops
    Ambiences: Deep Abysses, Train Stations, Seaside Waves, etc.
    Camera: Shutter Clicks, Flash Lifts and Falls
    Dialogue: A creepy, deep male voice
    Fireworks
    Ice: Impacts (Small, Moderate, Large), Gathering
    Roller Coasters: Full Rides, Chain Hill Lift, Screaming
    Screaming: Crowds and Roller Coasters
    Toilet Flushing
    Trains: Arriving, Leaving, Passing, Idling, Doors, Clip-Clop
    UI: Dialogue Text Scrolling
    Vacuum Cleaner Hoovers
    Vinyl Record: Glitching, Needle On and Off
    Water: Streams, Bubbling, Swirling, Splashing, Movement
    Weather: Rain, Hail, Wind, Thunder
    Whooshing
    Many, many more!(See the sound list below)

    PARTY PACK (1.98 GB, $40)
    An extensive collection of party-related sounds, “Party Pack” brings you 2,000 96kHz/24-bit stereo recordings of balloons, party horns, matches, sparklers, party poppers, confetti, various toys and more!
    SEWING MACHINE (2.73 GB, $32)
    This library brings you 800 mechanical sounds created entirely from an electronic sewing machine, including: 20 different rhythmic seams all recorded at up to 5 different speeds with 2 microphone positions; over 200 seamless loops; various gradual revvings, ramping up and down, clicks, ticks, movements and warm-up checks – all recorded at the standard 96kHz 24-bit stereo.
    UI – MECHANICAL (381 MB, $32)
    This library brings you 350 intricately designed user interface sounds with a mechanical aesthetic, recorded at 96kHz/24-bit stereo. These sounds were crafted from various machines, clockwork, buttons and switches alongside several other gadgets and tools. The library covers 10 UI categories, including:

    Cancel: A cancellation sound useful for backing out of a selection, or returning to a previous page.
    Confirm: A confirmation selection sound (more intense and fancier than the “Select” sounds) useful for a final confirmation or selection.
    Error: A negative error alert useful for a problem or issue.
    Loading: A loopable sound for a mechanical device that is loading, processing or analysing.
    Move: The quick, small movement sound as you move between different options in a menu or list.
    Notification: A notification alert useful for popups and messages.
    Select: A simpler selection sound for general confirmation and selections.
    Text Scroll: A loopable sound to accompany the scrolling of dialogue in a conversation or upon reading text
    Turning Off: A turning off or shutting down of a machine or device.
    Turning On: A turning on or booting up of a machine or device.

 
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2 thoughts on “Exploring New Sonic Worlds: Sound for Virtual Reality

  1. Speaking of mapping sensor data to sound, you might be interested in the work being done on haptics and haptic-tactile broadcasting, esp. for live virtual reality events where the “feeling” of the remote event can be captured, added to the audio and video VR stream and then decoded and used by the remote VR participant (using the appropriate haptic-tactile hardware such as a platform, vest, gloves, etc.) adding significant presence to the event.

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