What Goes Into Designing Virtual Reality Audio?

With the rising popularity and accessibility of virtual reality, the audio involved has become increasingly important. Since audio is a crucial layer to the overall immersion of virtual reality, many are working to evolve the current technologies to make audio more responsive to VR technology. For example, Google recently released a new audio technology called Omnitone, which changes the quality of sounds based on your relative three-dimensional positioning. With that, we wanted to spend some time exploring the inner workings of audio in virtual reality, and how it works!

What is Three-Dimensional Audio?

The most common method today for achieving three-dimensional sound comes by way of binaural audio. Binaural audio has existed for decades, but many wrote it off as an obscure novelty. However, with the advent of modern virtual reality systems, like the Oculus Rift, many have turned back to binaural audio as the best means to achieve 3D sound.

Binaural audio is not a very complex technology, but when used well, it can enhance the immersion of virtual reality in a big way. This system utilizes eight different speakers that form a full circumference of sound. For example, if you wanted a sound to come from your left side, it would play dominantly through the leftmost speaker. The same applies to the front and back, and the sounds can be blended between the eight speakers as well.

How Three-Dimensional Audio Hacks Our Brains

By utilizing eight speakers, the resulting sounds will manipulate your brain into thinking the audio is directional. It sounds a lot like surround sound in movie theaters, doesn’t it? But don’t be mistaken, acousticians often have fits when binaural audio and surround sound are used synonymously. In truth, binaural audio is a much simpler means of achieving three-dimensional sound, and that’s partly why it’s become the go-to in virtual reality audio technology. For an example of how binaural audio works, The Verge offers a demo of the technology that will work with any set of earbuds or headphones.  

To take binaural audio a step further, Google recently announced a new technology called Omnitone. This technology works much like binaural audio, except that the eight speakers actually rotate in accordance with your virtual movement. That’s to say, your whole field of sound changes relative to your positioning. This impressive technology might ultimately be the future of virtual reality!

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