For virtual reality (VR) to reach its full potential developers are going to need to think beyond our sight. True, fooling our eyes is the most pivotal mechanic in the likes of the Oculus Rift VR headset, but there are other senses that need to be tricked in order to create the full effect. While we won’t be worrying about taste for a long time (sorry, Cooking Mama), being able to feel and smell our surroundings are two areas that need to be manipulated, no matter how unpleasant the sensations. That’s something for another time. The final piece of the puzzle is of course sound, something that can make or break any VR experience.
No matter how life-like the visuals, VR falls apart without a proper audio output solution. If you’re firing a gun supposedly lined up with your eyes, but are hearing the rattle of bullets from your speakers a few meters away, there’s an immediate disconnect between the player and videogame. Trying to manage sounds from the environment you’re sitting in and those on screen can also be off-putting, especially when the title is emitting constant background noise.
In last week’s Losing my VR Virginity, I flagged this up while playing Half-Life 2. The title’s sound was at odds with the silent office I was sitting in. Characters standing right in front of me were talking, but their voices seemed to be behind them. Outside the window, a motorcycle sped past and rudely filled the room with his engine, pulling me back into the real world when I was engulfed in the virtual one.
You might think the answer is simple: headphones. While it’s true that a decent pair will improve things considerably, smaller earphones that you might use for an MP3 player won’t do the job. Surround sound headphones with noise cancelling speakers are practically a necessity to give any VR experience authenticity. Without it, audio doesn’t give a true representation of the world around you, especially when taking head-tracking into account. Audio needs adapt to where you’re turning your head and placing your ears in the world.
Even then, audio needs some serious input on the development side. Titles that are being natively developed for VR headsets will need to place emphasis on sound so that it doesn’t let the visuals down. There’s also the issue of soundtracks and original scores. They’ve been a staple of videogames for the last few generations, but it’s yet to be decided if they have a place in VR videogames. Unless a live band is following you around, it doesn’t really make sense to have an epic soundtrack ringing out across a battlefield.
There’s also an argument to be made about slipping on a chunky VR headset like the Oculus Rift and then pulling on a pair of headphones over that. It’s cumbersome to say the least. Perhaps, when the device finally reaches a consumer release, it could have a model with a built-in solution. Other wearable products such as the Google Glass currently do this, though perhaps not to the level of quality that VR would necessitate. Either that or release an officially-sanctioned accessory that fits to the device, perhaps in partnership with one of the big names in the speaker industry.
The potential to elevate audio in VR is exciting. In 1998, we fooled guards in Metal Gear Solid by knocking on walls and splashing puddles. Being able to manipulate these mechanics with the same pinpoint accuracy that we hear in everyday life could really open up the possibilities for some genres. Leaping out of your seat as a car screeches past you, easily locating where a grenade has landed based on the thud it makes hitting the floor, or even living out rock n’ roll fantasies on stage – all of these things could be possible in VR in the future.
‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.