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Sound in Virtual Reality – Why it Matters

by Beth Divine 6 Jun 2018

The impact of sound in virtual reality viewing or gameplay cannot be understated. Here’s a little bit of information about how it works, and why it is important.

Most people know what surround sound is. It is – as it sounds – audio played through an array of speakers arranged around the seating area to allow for sound effects and music to be played from any direction on an even plane. This is most commonly found in movie theatres, but can also be found in high-end television/ gaming rooms in homes.

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Spatial sound shows how technology has advanced since the advent of surround sound. Spatial sound can be played through headphones but offers the same surround sound effect, with the added benefit of offering sounds from above and below – no longer limited to a level plane. For example, the sound of a plane flying overhead and crashing to the right of the viewer, will begin high up and to the left, coming ‘lower’ and louder, crossing to the right, descending to ground level when it ends in – usually – a dramatic fireball, with appropriate explosions, screams and so on.

Watching television or a movie tends to only use a 45° to 60° field of view, so having the sound coming from the playback device is expected – surround sound is an indulgence, rather than a necessity. But with virtual reality, with its 180° to 360° field of view and total immersion in the alternate world, the brain needs to have sounds appear realistic, with appropriate degrees of distance, height and proximity.

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Virtual reality works because the brain is fooled into thinking that a screen that is mere inches away from the eyes is actually a window or doorway into a world that offers views of items inches, metres, and even miles away – and sometimes all of these at the same time. Sounds need to match up, in order for the user to have an authentic experience within the virtual world.

Poor sound effects, and mismatches between motion and the corresponding sounds, can make the brain ‘realise’ that it is being fooled and this can lead to – at worst – nausea and disorientation which can even lead to vomiting, much like seasickness, or – as a best case scenario – lack of immersion in the game or footage, which is the opposite of ideal for virtual reality, after all!

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