Running into the word “immersive” in a conversation about virtual reality is an inevitability. It is how we describe being dipped into a new environment through technology. Unlike televisions, computers, and smartphones, all of which are extensions of our environment, when we strap on an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, the headset becomes our new environment, making virtual reality an immersive technology.
Spatial audio is an indispensable tool for creating a realistic immersive experience.
What is it?
Spatial audio is audio mixed and designed inside of a three dimensional space.
Most easily consumable audio, whether its television, music, or podcasts, is only captured in one perspective. You can create a relatively realistic atmosphere with traditional audio, but the perspective is locked.
With spatial audio, you have the ability to expand and change the perspective.
Why is it important?
Imagine you put on a virtual reality headset, strap on some headphones, and you are now on the sidewalk of a busy street. You see a car coming straight towards you and if you continue facing forward the car will pass you on your right. The sound of the car grows louder as it approaches, particularly in your right ear. Now suppose rather than waiting for the car to pass you, you turn 180º, so that you are now facing the opposite direction of the approaching car. You will still be able to hear the car getting closer to you, but now the sound will be more focused in your left ear as the car passes by your left side.
This illustrates the capability of spatial audio to accommodate an individual’s movement in a virtual space. Traditional audio is always fixed no matter where you inhabit the space. So in the example above, the car approaching would grow louder in your right ear, but if you turned 180º, the sound of the car would continue being focused in your right ear, even though the vehicle would now be passing by on your left side. This causes a disconnect between what a user is seeing and what they are hearing, bringing them out of the experience.
How do you achieve it?
A 360º microphone is useful for creating spatial audio because it allows you to record every direction onto multiple channels with one piece of gear. Crafting a quality piece of 360º audio usually means combining spatial audio with traditional recording.
A 360º microphone is still just a room mic and won’t work as well in uncontrolled environments, such as at a concert venue or sporting event. One of the biggest arguments among VR content creators using the platform for film and 360º video, is how to deal with atmospheric noise in these uncontrolled settings.
This is where creative sound design comes into play. You could have audio of an outdoor music festival or basketball game which picks up all the noise of the crowd, or you could mix the audio in a way which cuts through the atmospheric chaos, turning the background noise into an ambiance. This allows the user to focus on the game commentary or the bands performing.
VR content producers need to ask themselves whether they want to put out an experience that is as sensorily authentic as the technology allows, or if they want to create a product which improves upon an experience.
While it is still too early in the life-cycle of VR to get an accurate gauge of audience preferences, spatial audio and creative sound design will continue to play a big role in determining whether a 360º video is a recreation of an event or an enhanced immersive experience.
As Content Strategist, Cate is responsible for creating, delivering, and optimizing written content across Greenfish Labs’ digital channels. Her primary responsibilities are writing on the Greenfish blog and across our social media platforms. Her skills in research help to keep Greenfish Labs one of the top thought-leaders in virtual reality.