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Sound and Vision: Why Audio Is Critical to Making Great VR

As the way most people consume music grows more mobile, it becomes easier to constantly see it as background noise — just another thing playing in your ears as you’re in a car, on the street or riding the train.

This trend has been accelerating since the introduction of the cassette and the Walkman, and now you’d be hard pressed to find someone without headphones in any given public space. With this comes less attention to detail of the sound. After all, when something can barely be heard above the din, why does the audio quality matter?

But what if all of those distractions suddenly disappeared, and you were left with only a few things to focus on? That’s exactly the case in VR, and this cutting-edge technology could be the thing that finally brings back an old-school focus on great audio.

With this could come the rise of what a friend called the “spatial format wars.” It’s an inside baseball term to be sure. But it basically points to a growing arms race to make VR experiences sound as good as possible, using sound that changes with movement and position.

A few weeks ago, Mach1 announced that its spatial audio is now available in the Samsung Gear, meaning that producers creating content for that platform will be able to include spatial audio in their experiences. Basically, spatial audio processing refers to the plethora of signal processing and audio reproduction techniques that allow the perception of audio content in space and thus in context. This makes the VR experience both more realistic and more immersive.

Great audio was also the focus of a recent piece that debuted at Tribeca, a new version of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah.” To be honest, the visuals simply weren’t that interesting — despite being beautifully shot, watching someone sing for a few minutes gets old quickly. But the audio was transcendent; an incredibly rich, full sound that brought a new dimension to a song we’ve all heard a million times. As you moved around the room, the sound changed and shifted in subtle ways, creating something that was both realistic (everything in the real world sounds different depending on where you are, of course) and fantastical.

The trend towards 3D immersive audio has started to spill into the real world as well — an artist named Christopher Willits has built a space in San Francisco that allows listeners to experience music in all dimensions, and is performing his new album in the format on tour as well. As more artists start playing with VR, perhaps this trend will catch on, and the quality of sound at live shows will improve and become more immersive.

Because VR removes almost all distractions from an experience, the senses we are using are much more heightened. It’s easy to excuse poor sound when there are other things to focus on, but if all you have to go on are your eyes and ears, the ears and your hearing become a far more important sense. The spatial format wars will hopefully lead to better sound quality in VR, with some of those improvements spilling out into the real world as well.