This week Google came out and announced that they are finally supporting spatial audio for the Google Cardboard headset. As many already know Google Cardboard is the low cost and relatively low quality sister to the more powerful and immersive GearVR, Oculus and Vive headsets. However with the introduction of spatial audio Google Cardboard has taken a big step forward in making their virtual reality experience much more dynamic.
As professionals in the film industry have know forever, you can get by with bad video, but poor audio will certainly ruin any film. Realistic sound (binaural audio) has a tremendous effect on our believability of an environment and contributes to our sense of a space. In virtual reality sound is especially important because spatial audio cues can be placed in the environment and get louder or softer depending on where the viewer stands.
Rooms with materials bounce audio sound a lot different than spaces with soft textures. Sound designers take special pains to highlight the ambience of a room and bring certain sounds to the foreground like the sound of feet walking over a creaky floor or the crunch of a boot stepping through the snow outside on the approach to the front door.
Virtual Reality promises an alternate reality that mimics the real world. Without the right audio input and realistic audio cues the brain doesn’t buy that it is a realistic environment.
Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus, is a big believer in the power of binaural (3D) sound. ‘It’s not an addition — it’s a multiplier.’ It’s a force multiplier when you have 3D positional sound in VR. It’s just one of those things that’s just so important. You buy into what you’re seeing.”
Despite the relative low-fi aspects of Mobile VR and Google Cardboard, binaural audio is an opportunity to increase exponentially the power of whatever experience you are creating. When building a virtual environment it is critical to remember to spend time designing what you hear not just what you see.