Sony announced their entry into the world of Virtual Reality gaming devices this week, with plans for their Playstation VR Headset to become available for pre-order on Tuesday, March 29.
About a dozen different VR headsets are currently on the market, all with wildly varied pros, cons, and price points. Choosing which VR solution is right for you and your budget can already seem daunting given all the options in a relatively new category, but there's another aspect of the VR experience that you may not have considered yet: immersive VR audio.
The Sony Playstation VR and the Oculus Rift include their own removable headphones, giving you the option to upgrade to your cans of choice. Other VR devices like the HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR and the highly accessible Google Cardboard either only come with basic earbuds or rely on you providing your own headphones. So no matter which VR device you prefer, headphones seem necessary to complete the whole experience.
If video has been the star of the VR show so far, then audio is the entire supporting cast. The evolving VR video solutions are impressive and impossible to miss. They're right in front of your face, after all. But what good is a virtual world if you can't tell which direction enemy fire is coming from beyond your line of sight?
In the current stage of VR development, designing immersive VR audio is a huge challenge. The VR experience is still so new that there aren't clear guidelines or polished tools for recording, processing, or presenting a seamless connection between VR video and audio. Several players are battling for the opportunity to break into the space and create that holy grail of an immersive virtual experience. In order for VR to reliably fool the human brain, the technology must be able to manipulate of our senses of sight and sound in tandem.
Existing VR audio technology uses recording techniques like "ambisonics," which captures sound from all directions through a spherical microphone, or the VisiSonics method of sourcing sounds inside a 3D space lined with hundreds of microphones to help build the illusion of a dynamic soundscape. The existing techniques still work best in a lab setting, but considering how much immersive audio contributes to sustaining a VR illusion, you can expect more audio companies to deliver their home solutions soon.
Sennheiser already unveiled their new 3D audio technology, AMBEO, at the 2016 CES in January, stating as part of their announcement that "3D audio is the new frontier of excellence, set to transform the listening experience for users across a broad range of applications, from virtual reality gaming to audio recording and broadcasting."
Exploring this new frontier brings some amount of uncertainty. As VR gaming approaches the mainstream, I wonder what the future might sound like. Will I actually be fooled into turning my head to discover what in the virtual world is making sound behind me? I sure hope so.
So far, one thing is certain. For the best possible VR experience, you need immersive audio. To properly experience the immersive audio, you need headphones. To take it one step further, you probably want a quality pair of cans capable of accurately presenting 3D spatial audio in a dynamic virtual soundscape. That's an earful, but the importance of convincing and immersive audio cannot be understated if we're really trying to fool our brains.